While promoting his “Cesar Chavez” film two weeks before its opening last month, director Diego Luna received a rude awakening when he plowed into the streets of Austin, Texas, to ask Latinos passing by if they knew who the legendary farm labor leader was.
The Mexican actor was stunned to learn that most of those whom he asked had no clue about Chavez.
That was an important and pivotal key to the film’s success – and why it has so utterly failed at the box office.
The disappointing $4.6 million earnings the first two weeks of “Cesar Chavez” obviously has come as a shocking eye-opener for its filmmakers and Hollywood, where its success could have resulted in more projects aimed at Latino moviegoers.
In its third weekend, the Chavez film all but disappeared and now faces a challenge in covering its $10 milllion budget.
Latinos were crucial as moviegoers, and they apparently failed to support the film. Attendance at the theaters did not even come close to reflecting the numbers the film’s producers expected.
A 2013 Nielsen report found that Latinos go to the movies in disproportionately high numbers. They make up 16 percent of the U.S. population, but they bought 25 percent of the movie tickets sold in 2012.
There’s also history with films about Latino icons doing well financially.
“La Bamba,” the film about 1950′s rocker Ritchie Valens, grossed $54 million in 1987, while “Selena” a movie about a slain Tejana singer raked in $35 million in 1997, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).
Neither of those films had the White House screening and endorsement of “Cesar Chavez,” not to mention the increased Latino population or the internet’s potential wildfire word-of-mouth promotion.
What happened? How could a long-awaited film about the man generally considered the greatest Latino in American history, for whom schools, streets and buildings are named, honored almost religiously by the Kennedys and on postage stamps and holidays, likened to Martin Luther King Jr. – how could a film about him fail as it has?
Part of the answer may be in the incident at the trendy South by Southwest Music Festival where Luna learned that Cesar Chavez, for all his fame and honors, hadn’t transcended into today’s pop culture influenced society, among Latinos.
For although many consider Chavez’s stature to be national in scope, the reality is apparently different, and the days in which he was national news — for his union’s strikes and secondary boycotts of grapes and then lettuce — are now four decades or more behind us.
Chavez also had nowhere near the success of organizing farm laborers in other states as he did in California, altogether giving up on that challenge in Texas, and he remains largely unknown among many there, even among Hispanics.
Another important aspect is that Chavez’s role as a civil rights leader may have been sentimentally exaggerated beyond his importance in labor activism and leadership, especially in the years after his death in 1993.
He was a labor leader, to be sure, but was he the Latino Martin Luther King Jr., who moved a nation to its moral conscience, known and followed by his own and others in major American cities as he was in the rural farm fields?
Although many often link him to it, the fact is that Cesar Chavez was not really a part of the Chicano movement that followed and imitated the black civil rights movement.
He was often in conflict with the leadership of the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s, even having a speaking invitation to La Raza Unida’s only national convention in 1972 rescinded because of his loyal ties to the Democratic Party.
Chavez also had problems with the Latino leadership within the Democratic Party of California where a bitter legislative fight in the early 1980′s caused a rift between Cesar and Latino political leaders that went on for years until his death.
The consensus among many in California was that Chavez had been essentially a rural Latino leader, popular among Hispanics in the cities but out of touch with urban issues facing the majority of Latinos.
Chavez’s reputation has also suffered in today’s fervor over immigration reform because of his early strong opposition on the issue when he feared that employers would use illegal laborers to break strikes. He did support the immigration reform bills of the 1980′s, and supporters have maintained that his stance today would be in support of immigrant’s rights.
Then there is the film itself, starring Michael Peña and Rosario Dawson, which has drawn criticism among some as “not being Chicano enough,” and among others as not having told the full story of Cesar Chavez.
In fairness to Luna and the film’s producers, however, biopics aren’t biographies, and even the arguably great ones – like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” – capture only a slice of the subject’s life.
Ultimately, the fate of “Cesar Chavez” and its legacy may be one like that of the labor leader himself – an unfinished struggle against incredible odds.