In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
The name Cesar Chavez is synonymous with the United Farm Workers union, but while his face is branded to the cause, the contributions of Dolores Huerta are often a mere footnote if even mentioned at all. Filmmaker Peter Bratt intends to change that, and if the reception of this tremendous little film is at all congruent to its quality, his mission will surely be accomplished. I, for one, had never heard the name Dolores Huerta prior to seeing this film, but now I must call myself a fan.
Before unionization, the bulk of farm workers were overworked, underpaid, and due to both poverty and a language barrier, almost impossible to organize as a singular workforce. Few were citizens and fewer were treated with the dignity which should be afforded to anyone who can put in a hard day’s work. One didn’t need to know English to understand the imbalance of power which drives workers to an early grave: If you aren’t willing to do the job, someone else will. Expendability is the death of job security, and when a laborer is without power, the safe bet is to shut up and keep grinding. Huerta saw this as an injustice, and as a bilingual woman with an unflappable drive, unionizing farm workers became her life’s passion.
Using a mix of talking heads and an unprecedented amount of on-the-front-lines footage, Bratt has created a compelling, joyous documentary that takes pains to avoid the hagiographic leanings of similar films. This is a portrait of Huerta, warts and all, and at a time where we Americans seem hell-bent on destroying any notable figure that isn’t a flawless beacon of purity, it’s refreshing to see a documentary that doesn’t go out of its way to bend truths. Don’t get me wrong, Huerta is not a bad person by any stretch of meaning, but to quote one of her eleven children, many of whom speak in the film, “she didn’t belong to us.”
One of the many sacrifices made by Huerta’s family on her behalf was the bonds of family itself. As a ravenously committed activist, it was only on intermittent occasions that Huerta found time to be with her kids. The film shows that their shared love was abiding, but the children all seem to agree that in some way, they have been scarred.
But to misquote Huerta, no change can come without sacrifice, and she was more than willing to sacrifice anything for her cause. This, as well as her seemingly endless well of energy led to as many sacrifices as there were victories. Dolores Huerta has been jailed, beaten, and disrespected in ways that few of us could imagine, and it seems as if she’d do it all again without second thought. As the film follows her through the founding of the United Farm Workers union and into the progressive era of the 60s (where she became chums with Robert Kennedy — so much so that she was present for his assassination), it becomes clear why Dolores Huerta was so effective: her method was not one of speaking on behalf of those she sought to help, but rather of empowering them and giving them the resources needed to effect the change they so desire.
Dolores smartly weaves in a dissection of the difficulties inherent to activism, showing how Huerta’s methods can effectively be used to address intersectionality amongst movements which share DNA, and how even though disagreements arise, one must always keep the goal in mind. Methods matter, and an ego without malleability helps no one. Case in point: as a Catholic, Huerta could not reckon supporting the pro-choice movement, but as her sphere of influence connected with notable feminists, her opinions on the matter changed, and I sat there in a state of stunned incredulity that a movie was attempting to push a “people can grow” message on our increasingly “ONCE BAD, ALWAYS BAD, BURN THE WITCH” brand of culture consumption.
The thing is, had Dolores been diluted in any way, I’m sure its subject would’ve been the first to speak up.
At 87, Huerta, now a Presidential Medal of Freedom holder, remains an unstoppable force, whose obsession with leaving the world a better place than she found it makes for a great lesson and an excellent movie. In the segments where she addresses the camera from the present day she displays a fiery passion which, if even a fraction were exhibited by someone a decade her junior, would be lauded as commendably spry.
Even if, like me, you weren’t familiar with Huerta before now, surely you’ve heard her slogan: “Si se puede,” which translates in English to “Yes we can.”
Dolores opens in Philly theaters today.