Chavez Film: The Producer Strikes Back

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The producers of a new biopic about the late labor leader Cesar Chavez are rushing to tamp down a flickering controversy appearing on Latino social media over whether unionized workers were fired and non-union personnel employed on the film.

The allegation is being vigorously disputed by lead producerPablo Cruz, who said the production complied with all union regulations andthat all the actors, either those from the U.S. or from Mexico, were unionmembers. He did concede, however, that extras hired in Mexico were non-unionsince there is no equivalent of an extras union in Mexico.

‘If there was a union for extras (in Mexico), we would havehad them, but there wasn’t one,’ Cruz said.

Cesar Chavez, which is directed by Diego Luna and stars Michael Pena, America Ferrara, Rosario Dawson and John Malkovich,is scheduled to be released March 28 in more than 600 theaters by Pantelion Films.

The movie was shot predominately in Sonora, Mexico, for reasons that had to do with the grape-picking season and how differently grapesare harvested today in the Central Valley of California, as opposed to decades ago when Cesar Chavez was organizing farm workers.

Cruz also rejected claims that they were a ‘runaway’ production. ‘We are a Mexican production company. We are the company who managed to finance this film. We are not a U.S. company.’

If the union/non-union issues are not satisfactorily dealt with, they could impact the film’s perception, especially in the Latino community, where Chavez’s struggle to organize California farm workers lifted him in many eyes into the Latino equivalent of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The controversy, which has been around for a few years, erupted anew earlier this week when the website Latino Rebels published a story under the headline: ‘Critics of New Chavez Movie Allege Producers Used Non-Union Workers and Outsourced Workto Mexico.’

The source of this allegation was an L.A. activist namedChamba Sanchez, who wrote on his Facebook page that he had received an emailasking if he would help promote the film. He derisively questioned why he would want Luna to get rich?

‘Furthermore,’ Sanchez posted, ‘I am currently researching into allegations that people behind this movie fired unionized workers and outsourced part or the entire production to Mexico. This is quite disturbing. If this is the case, Cesar Chavez must be spinning in his grave. And a bigger question: Why his family would agree to this?’

‘We never fired anybody to hire a non-union person,’ Cruz said. ‘That is ridiculous. Those claims are nonsense.’

Sanchez later noted that he was ‘taken aback by the controversy that my post about Cesar Chavez’s movie sparked.’

‘Although I understand that some studios might hire non-union workers sometimes. But come on, this is a movie about a LABOR leader who was not only a forceful champion for social and economic justice but he also sacrificed so much to make sure that his followers had a contract that would pay them union wages. Thus, having non-union workers in this film that seeks to honor the great work that this man did makes no sense.’

Cruz said his production company complied with allregulations by SAG and other unions connected with his film, including theTeamsters.

Sanchez said he emailed Pantelion Films about the allegations and had not received a reply.

‘I had better luck with the people from the Screen Actors Guild, American Federal of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA),’ his Facebook post read. ‘People from this Guild explained the budgetary constraints that people from the studio were facing. SAG-AFTRA claimed that although the main actors and actresses were all unionized, the background people i.e.,extras and second-tier actor and actresses may not have been unionized. The lack of resources, it was further argued, forced the studios to take the production to a non-union state and Mexico. So, yes there are non-unionized workers in this film.’

Again, Cruz said they complied with all SAG regulations and with regulations of unionized Mexican workers, but that did not extend to Mexican extras who do not have a union.

Reached by phone on Friday,Sanchez said, ‘I am a union guy who believes that workers need representation. If we are going to make a movie about a labor leader and honor his struggles,the least we can do is hire everybody who is in a union.’

Sanchez, 49, said he is an adjunct political science professor at Los Angeles City College and East Los Angeles College. He said he was arrested last November in L.A.’s Chinatown district during a protest against Walmart.

Marc Grossman, communications director for the Cesar Chavez Foundation, which is based in Keene, California, said they licensed the rights to make the film.

‘Before shooting of the film began, this issue (about union workers) came up,’ Grossman recalled. ‘We talked to Diego and Pablo, the director and producer, and they went to SAG and all the other unions. And the unions were satisfied with the arrangements that were made with the producers.Our understanding is that they were all either members of SAG or the appropriate U.S. or Mexican unions.’

The film holds promise for Hollywood because the industry realizesthe impact Latino audiences are having on box office.

Furthermore, Latinos see this film as a rare opportunity to showcase one of their leaders in a positive light and tell the entire national, as well as a new generation of young people, who Chavez was and what he stood for.

Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts in Washington, D.C., said he has not seen the film but acknowledged that it already has ‘broad support’ among Latinos.

‘I think the work of Cesar Chavez has national implications and it has always had national implications,’ he noted. ‘I think he was one of the most revered leaders because he did it in a non violent way and fasted through many periods of crises and he was a galvanizing figure for the Latino community.’

The incendiary nature of Chamba Sanchez’ allegations brought this reply on his Facebook page from former California State Sen. Martha Escuita, currently the vice president for government relations at the University of Southern California overseeing the university’s federal, state and local government relations:

‘I would be interested in knowing more about the alleged firings. But if the movie is good, I don’t mind for Diego Luna to ‘get rich.’In fact, I don’t mind for people to get rich if it’s a result of hard work. And frankly, these are the type of stories that should be told by Hollywood producers, not the BS stories of gang members and films such as American Me .More power to Diego Luna for breaking the cycle of ‘Latino gang’ stories. So I will support his movie.’

But Escuita may have raised eyebrows with another comment when she wrote, ‘There’s a split between Dolores Huerta and the UFW, don’t know the exact reasons why she left but its common knowledge.’

Escuita did not return a phone call seeking further comment.

But Cruz said Huerta was at the Berlin Film Festival promoting the film and bringing audiences to their feet as only she can.

Grossman, meanwhile, said there is no split between Huerta and the Chavez family. ‘She left the UFW years ago to form her own foundation,’ he explained. ‘But we work together on important issues involving farmworkers.’

Huerta could not immediately be reached for comment.

In Berlin, the Hollywood trades had lackluster things to say about the movie itself. Variety’s review describes it this way: ‘A passion project about a passionate man takes surprisingly flat form,’ while The Hollywood Reporter said the ‘famed Latino American labor leader gets routine treatment in this inert biopic.’

Pantelion has been screening the film for select audiences,including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in Washington. It has also launched a grass-roots effort in the Latino community making it aware of the film. In addition, the United Farm Workers and the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation have supported a grassroots effort to gather petitions asking President Obama to declare March 31, Chavez’s birthday, as a national day of service.

Julio Ricardo Varela of Boston, who founded Latino Rebels in 2011 as an online news cooperative focusing on U.S. Latino issues, noted that allegations about the use of non-union workers on the production surfaced as far back as 2012 when an anonymous author using the pseudonym of Lisa Mendoza posted a complaint on Latina Lista: ‘A casting notice came my way from the same casting director saying that several roles were still available for the Chavez film and they were all ‘NON-UNION, ARIZONA LOCAL HIRES ONLY.’ I had to re-read that several times because I couldn’t believe what I was reading. A film centered on the theme of unionism is hiring non-union actors to tell the story?’

But he also said that just getting the film made is a big accomplishment. ‘I think you’re not going to please everybody.’

‘One of the issues people are asking is whether Diego Luna,who is of Mexican descent, took the time to really reach out to the local Chicano community in California about this story. The people who were involved with Chavez or who knew Chavez. I don’t know if he did that or not, so I can’t speak to that. But there is a feeling in some sectors of the Latino community,mostly coming out of California, that this portrayal might not be the mostaccurate one.? He said some people worry about the ‘Hollywoodization’ of Cesar Chavez’s life.

Grossman, who has seen the film, concedes that Luna has compressed historical facts that did not happen in the way depicted in the movie. ‘They’ll take some events that really happened in 1971 or 1973 and putthem in that period,’ he said. ‘They really did happen. They just didn’t happen in the right chronological way. This is not a documentary. This is a film that is very faithful to the character and events. We are very pleased. The portrayals are very genuine.’

About Robert W. Welkos

Executive Editor: Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the entertainment industry for 15 years as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. During this span, he wrote extensively about the movie industry from turmoil in the executive suites, the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and box office hits and bombs to visits to movie sets as well as profiles of top stars and A-list directors, cutting edge features on the newest indie films and visits to famous film festivals like Sundance and Cannes. Prior to entertainment, Welkos worked as a reporter and assistant city editor in The Times’ Metro section where he undertook major investigations for the paper as well as covering breaking news and writing in-depth features. Before joining The Times, he worked for the Associated Press in Reno, Nevada, and City News Service in Los Angeles.

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