I once had a homiletics professor who said not to worry too much if it appears that members of the congregation are daydreaming during your homily. A homily, he pointed out, is not an act of persuasion. You’re not up there trying to prove some point. (Or if you are, God help the people.) A good homily is meant to break open the Word, that is, to draw people into a space where God is close and can speak to them directly. Once they’re there, your mission is accomplished (even if you still have a lot to say).
It seems to me that movies at times function similarly. By far the majority of films today rely on intricate plots, big action sequences, sight gags and/or snappy patter to keep our full attention. But occasionally a film comes along that is more like an Ignatian meditation, offering a bare bones framework of characters and events that invite the audience into a place where they can pray with and ponder their own lives.
Diego Luna’s new film César Chávez is such a project. In just over 90 minutes, Luna presents Mexican-American labor organizer César Chávez’s 1960s and ‘70s fight for the rights of migrant farmworkers in California. Though the details are different from the story of a Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela, Luna’s film follows a pretty standard formula: noble figure on the outside of history faces down powerful forces arrayed against them, at risk to themselves and others, but the ultimate good of all.
In the film Chávez huddles with like-minded allies, such as his wife Helen (the luminous America Ferrara), co-founder of his movement Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) and lawyer Jerry Cohen (Wes Bentley). And he has his opponents, who include not only rich landowners (led by Ron Perkins and a wonderfully understated John Malkovich), but his oldest son Chato (Maynor Alvarado), who has no interest in life-as-a-cause.
The film offers the requisite turning points—Bobby Kennedy speaking on the farm workers’ behalf; Chávez’s 25-day hunger strike for nonviolence; then-Governor Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon’s attempts to destroy the farm workers’ strike. And it has its intimate moments of encouragement and struggle among Chavez’s family and friends.
Rising above this conventional framework usually requires a lighting-in-the-bottle lead performance, a la Sean Penn in Milk or Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. But as played by Michael Peña, César Chávez is a largely impassive, almost opaque figure. Though his commitment to the farm workers is clear, we never get a glimpse of what makes this man tick, what the stakes are for him personally. Even as screenwriters Timothy J. Sexton and Keir Pearson lay out the cost of Chávez’s work in the burden it places on his wife and son, Peña’s stoical portrayal mutes our sense of its impact.
But the choice to make Chávez more distant—which some critics have criticized—also makes the audience more active, inviting them to fill in the blanks and engage the issues Chávez faced for themselves.
Personally, I was reminded of the recent reports of Amazon.com workers toiling in warehouses far from sight who suffer terrible working conditions, just so that I can get a book within 48 hours. Likewise, not a month seems to go by without another story of the men, women and children in Asia who assemble amazing technological marvels for us—computers and smart phones and home theater systems—yet struggle to support their own families, or even just to survive their working conditions.
The persistence of experiences like this in our country almost 50 years since the struggle of the farm growers begs the question whether we have progressed ethically as a nation. Or have we just learned ways to export our victims far enough away that we are no longer likely to see them, and they cannot mount a response?
Chávez’s story also brought to mind the situation in our universities. I’ve spent over half my life in and around institutions of higher education. And while few on the typical Catholic campus are getting rich (other than perhaps the coaches), it’s hard to miss the fact that some workers are not getting paid enough. Adjunct professors provide a larger and larger piece of the labor force at our schools, yet their salaries are often minimal and without benefits. Maintenance staff, grounds crews, dining hall workers all work long hours doing difficult physical work, but their salaries are in many cases not commensurate. And in many otherwise progressive institutions, the potential unionization of such groups provokes vehemence not too different from the animosity that Chávez and the farm workers faced.
Past history suggests that eventually there will be a Chávez of Amazon. And a Martin Luther King Jr. (or Susan B. Anthony) of China, for that matter. For all our failings as a human society, the arc of history does seem to be bending toward freedom and justice.
But the question that “César Chávez” raises is whether such progress will ever bring with it not just change for some, but change in us and in our society. We might cast original sin as an intriguing myth from our Jewish forebears; yet the slippery persistence of sin in our social structures is also clear.
None of us wants to be responsible for the pain of another. But the reality that having things quick and cheap creates not just the possibility for, but the necessity of such hardship is even today buried or ignored.
And that is indeed a situation worth meditating on.