More an overview of a movement than a portrait of the man, "The Fight in the Fields" examines several decades of California agricultural workers' activism as spearheaded by the late Cesar Chavez. Long, complex, unresolved history is laid out in straightforward, somewhat exhaustive terms here, albeit at the cost of a more compellingly dramatic or personal approach. Subject should ensure this ITVS production a broadcast future (skedded PBS debut is April 16); conventional tube-style approach will limit theatrical play to fests and limited rep-house dates. Following a brief spin through California's early mass-agribiz history from the 1860s onward, we learn that Chavez was born in 1927 to parents who were farm owners --- until the Depression forced the family to join other hard-hit Mexican-Americans, Okies, et al. on the road to migrant-labor camps in California. Thus Chavez got a very early taste of ill-paying, punishing field work. After a brief postwar Navy stint, he married and became engrossed in the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, whose nonviolent resistance tactics would define his own.

Soon Chavez was rising to importance as an organizer, founding the United Farm Workers Union in 1962. Their task was multileveled, and formidable: to secure decent wages and improve often deplorable working conditions; to unite the Mexican, Philippine and poor white workers who’d been kept separate by cultural divides and clever employer tactics; to be taken seriously by owners who, being mostly “self-made” former immigrants themselves (many of Italian or Slavic extraction), tended to look down on the laborers as ignorant sub-citizens.

Seldom straying from a mix of surviving participants’ recollections and archival footage, pic does at times capture the excitement and commitment of a long-overdue movement catching fire. Police violence helped focus sympathetic media attention on the long-term grape workers’ strike, as did a march on the state capital and Chavez’s jailing during a period of fragile health. On a larger plane, the movement gave Chicano culture a focal point from which a new generation’s poetry, visual art, music and theater (repped here by stage and film vet Luis Valdez) blossomed. Strong public support from Bobby Kennedy (and after his murder, Ethel Kennedy, interviewed here) brought further attention to Chavez and his cause.

Vet broadcast-doc helmers Rick Tejada-Flores and Ray Telles deal with all this in straight chronological fashion, probably the cleanest path for a story that involves many political, cultural and historical factors. But results are more organizationally admirable than emotionally involving.

Major flaw is that Chavez himself never comes into focus save as a public figure. His widow notes that the man’s intense, health-endangering workaholism (which embraced more than one long-term fast-as-protest) left her basically to raise their eight children alone. But a figure whose methods and personality remain controversial to many — not long ago, the move to rename a street after Chavez met with furious objection even in liberal San Francisco — otherwise remains a cipher here. Solemn testimonials to his “saint”-like work far outnumber the dissenting voices.

Another bug is inherent in this subject: As inspiring as much of Chavez’s work was, with many individual victories en route, the fight seems more daunting than ever. The UFW lost strength in the 1980s — due partly, some say, to over-reliance on Chavez’s sometimes erring leadership, and also to hostile state legislators. But biggest hurdle, perhaps, is recent years’ surge in undocumented laborers, who can scarcely risk calling attention to abusive work conditions and thus are vulnerable to old-school exploitation. (While grape growers have somewhat redeemed their long-tarnished labor rep, current activist focus is on the back-breaking strawberry fields.)

Thus pic is stuck closing book on a life whose cause remains frustratingly far from being won, and which no longer commands the broad public attention it did in 1960s and ’70s. Death of Chavez in 1993 (at age 66, after years of ill health) is dealt with in surprisingly hasty fashion at close here, considering what a major event it was in the California Latino and other communities.

Though editing doesn’t provide much variance in pacing or emphasis, package is well done on a conventional level, with decent vid-to-16mm transfer.

The Fight in the Fields

Production

An Independent Television Service presentation. Produced, directed by Ray Telles, Rick Tejada-Flores.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, video-to-16mm), Vincente Franco; editor, Herb Ferrette; music, Pete Sears; sound, Doug Dunderdale; associate producer, Laurie Coyle; production executive, Frederick D. Perry. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 19, 1997. Running time: 118 MIN.

With

Narrator: Henry Darrow.
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