Sometimes truth is more dramatic than fiction. If you want to watch the best movie made about Cesar Chavez and the farmworker movement, all you need is an internet connection. Several old movies now online capture the spirit and action of the times — not to mention the vintage cars, hairstyles, dress, and music – and I’ll list links to them in another post. But this is about a movie called “¡Huelga!” made in 1966 by Mark J. Harris. From the opening shot, where the camera pans across acres and acres of grapes in central California, this movie powerfully conveys a sense of the herculean task Chavez’s union faced, the conditions in which farmworkers lived and worked, the sense of solidarity and community that fueled the strike, and the empowerment that Chavez’s union brought to the fields. It’s a masterful and inspiring portrait of the farmworkers and their struggle.
Thanks to the industriousness of LeRoy Chatfield, an early and important adviser to Chavez, the film is online, in six parts. I can’t recommend them highly enough. You can probably click through from one to the next on youtube, but here’s a short guide with links to each segment:
Part 1 introduces Chavez, the strike and the fields.
Part 2 opens with a remarkable monologue by Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez, as he walks through labor camps an talks about his own experience growing up.
Part 3 shows Chavez on the picket line, interacting with workers, and explaining the strike.
Part 4 begins with Christmas in Delano, as Chavez and Dolores Huerta welcome and thank the union’s outside supporters who kept the strike alive, and it ends with wonderful footage of the march to Sacramento and an explanation of its significance by Luis Valdez.
Part 5 shows the Teatro Campesino performing a skit for workers in front of the union headquarters, and then workers massing to block a bus bringing scabs to the fields.
Part 6 ends on an inspiring note, as strikers persuade a DiGiorgio foreman and crew to join their struggle and Chavez talks about his confidence that the union will prevail.
So, President Obama may be able to watch a DVD of the new biopic in the White House this weekend, but everyone can, and should, watch a movie that truly captures the spirit, sights, and scenes of the early years of Cesar Chavez’s farm worker movement.