They may be well-worn documentary subjects, but Cesar Chavez’s life and works prove inspiring once again in solid docu “Cesar’s Last Fast.” This long-in-the-works portrait of the late agricultural workers’ champion cuts between a recap of his overall career and a more detailed chronicle of the 36-day protest fast he undertook in 1988. Credited to Richard Ray Perez and co-director Lorena Parlee (who died in 2006), the film should be an attractive prospect for select broadcasters and educational outlets. Participant Media picked up U.S. distribution rights at Sundance.

At the age of 61, Chavez commenced this water-only fast (not his first) to draw attention to the dangers of pesticides to field workers and their families. Growers at the time cited lack of definitive proof that the chemicals used on crops resulted in illness or death, but the occurrence of “cancer clusters” precisely where they were used most heavily suggested that medical science would establish that link as fact soon enough.

Scenes from the attendant vigil, most of which Chavez spent bedridden in an increasingly weakened state, periodically pepper the film’s overview of his high-profile activism until that point. Pic traces his journey from migrant-farmworker family roots to his initial organizing of laborers in the early 1960s, the first widespread strikes a few years later, his breakthrough negotiating successes, his spearheading of grape and lettuce boycotts, etc.

The advocacy of his United Farm Workers union (co-founded with Dolores Huerta, a major interviewee here) was badly needed. Only agricultural and domestic workers had been specifically excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, making the two areas that made the most use of racial minorities the least regulated by law. Even more disenfranchised among the two by frequent language barriers and migratory/temporary employment, field workers performed grueling physical tasks for long hours at dirt-poor pay, often with primitive housing and no benefits whatsoever.

With local police and judges usually on the owners’ side, protests were sometimes brutally (even murderously) suppressed, necessitating media exposure as a key tactic to getting the UFW’s constituencies a fair hearing. When hard-won contracts expired, growers brought in armed guards, scab workers and Teamsters to disadvantage strikers trying to renew their terms. While Chavez and Co. won many battles over the years, agri-worker exploitation and mistreatment remains a huge U.S. issue, further complicated by the public hostility toward undocumented immigrants.

Pic touches only briefly on some of the personal controversies that swirled around Chavez later on, notably a period of devotion to the group therapy/religious cult Synanon that made many loyal followers question his judgment. Still, he remained a formidable figure, making his 1988 fast a national news event. After a point, doctors strongly used him to stop before incurring permanent health damage. (He died of natural causes five years later.)

There’s a strong narrative drive to the film’s assembly, which tells the parallel stories primarily through a wealth of archival footage; new interviews with family members and colleagues fill in any gaps. While not necessarily the definitive cinematic account of Chavez’s life or the UFW movement, “Cesar’s Last Fast” provides a well-crafted, sometimes stirring encapsulation.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Cesar’s Last Fast’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 2014. Running time: 97 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Participant Media release of a Monkey Mind Media production. Produced by Richard Ray Perez, Molly O'Brien, Lorena Parlee. Executive producers, Lyn Davis Lear, O'Brien, Perez. Co-producer, Lisa Remington.
  • Crew: Directed by Richard Ray Perez, Lorena Parlee. Camera (color, HD), James Chressanthis, Byron Shah; editors, Jean-Philippe Boucicaut, Lewis Erskine, Christopher S. Johnson; music, Ed Barguiarena; sound, Joe Milner.
  • With: LeRoy Chatfield, Paul Chavez, Richard Chavez, Jerry Cohen, Marshall Ganz, Chris Hartmire, Dolores Huerta, Fidel Huerta, Marion Moses, Gil Padilla, Arturo Rodriguez, Martin Sheen, Luis Valdez. (English, Spanish dialogue)