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Photo courtesy of Pantelion Films

Cesar Chavez (Michael Pena) is helped along by supporters after a 25-day fast in a scene from “Cesar Chavez: An American Hero.”

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America Ferrera plays Helen Chavez, whose key role in the movement was not widely known until now.

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Cesar Chavez (Michael Pena) leads farmworkers into the fields in a scene from “Cesar Chavez: An American Hero.”

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Director Diego Luna on location filming the movie.

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Photo courtesy of Victor Alemane

This portrait of labor leader Cesar Chavez is among those on display in an exhibit at the National Chavez Center in Keene.

As the eldest son of Cesar and Helen Chavez, he was there in the thick of it: The historic march from Delano to Sacramento, watching as his mother was hauled off in handcuffs for her union activity, and standing by, helpless and afraid, for 25 days in 1968 while his father wasted away during the first of many fasts. But it wasn't until years later, when he was a student at UCLA, that Fernando Chavez fully understood that his father wasn't just making speeches and leading strikes. He was building a civil rights movement to improve the lives of everyday people, a movement that went far beyond where it started, in the vineyards of Delano.

"When you're caught in the middle of the battle, you don't look at it with another perspective than how it is right now," said Chavez, 64, a Bay Area civil attorney. "I think it was when I was sitting in a class -- it was a market studies class -- and one of the professors started saying, 'We're living in a historic period,' that it crystalized for me. That's when I said, 'My God. This is historic.' To have someone else describe it in those terms was different."

Now another outsider is trying to do the same thing, albeit for a wider audience: Put into context the unprecedented social crusade that emerged when Chavez and the other pioneers of the United Farm Workers realized what they were building was as much a civil rights organization as a labor union.

In "Cesar Chavez: An American Hero," a feature film that opens in Bakersfield theaters Friday, director Diego Luna traces Chavez's activism -- the strikes, the boycotts, the marches -- but also how, spiritually awakened by his work with the poor and marginalized and devoted to the principle of nonviolence, he managed to transcend the movement he created, becoming an icon for social justice in the same league as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

The problem, Luna said, is that many young people have only a vague idea, if any at all, who Chavez was and what he did.

"I think many drive through Cesar Chavez Avenue without knowing what it means," said Luna, 34, a Mexican actor turned filmmaker.

Shot largely in Mexico -- to approximate what the fields of Delano looked like 50 years ago -- the film was written by Keir Pearson ("Hotel Rwanda"), who worked closely with the Chavez family. Michael Pena ("End of Watch," "American Hustle") stars as Chavez, and America Ferrera ("Ugly Betty," "End of Watch") steals the picture as the fiery Helen Chavez, whose courage and sacrifices were not widely understood until now, said Paul Chavez, president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation and the sixth of the couple's eight children.

"I thought (Ferrera) did a really good job with my mom. The scene where they're trying to have that strike vote and there's a little mini-debate about whether to get involved with the Filipino workers and would they do that for us -- America was kind of sitting back from the crowd and says, 'Well, are we a union or not?' That is quintessential Helen Chavez. She got to the point and didn't mince words."

(Mrs. Chavez, 86, is recovering after injuring her shoulder in a fall and doesn't do interviews, but her eldest son reports his mother's reaction to seeing her life unfold on screen: "My mother is a no-frills person. She was like, 'Yeah, OK, fine, they made a film. All right.")

Pena, who gives a stolid, earnest performance, had the tougher job, Fernando Chavez said. In spite of his ability to mobilize thousands of workers, Chavez was no pulpit-pounding fire-breather.

"The thing that made my dad so different was the internal quality, not so much the visual quality," he said. "That's really tough to capture, so (Pena) had a tough row to hoe."

'Not just something Cesar Chavez did'

In fact, Chavez was so uncomfortable -- embarrassed even -- by the attention he received that his son-in-law has no doubt, were he here today, what his reaction to the film would be.

"He wouldn't like it at all," said Arturo Rodriguez, who succeeded Chavez as president of the UFW. "The reason is that he knew and realized that this was not just something that Cesar Chavez did. This was something that lots of people made huge sacrifices for. I mean especially in those early days. People lost their homes, they lost their cars, it had a real severe impact on lots of families and there was discrimination that took place in the schools against farmworker children. And so he doesn't necessarily like, never liked, that he would be the center of it."

Though Chavez might have been uncomfortable with the attention -- he once turned down an offer by Robert Redford to make a film on his life -- the labor leader's family had no such qualms.

Still, Paul Chavez, who had a major hand in the development of the film, wishes there had been time to explore other leaders, like Dolores Huerta, played with spirit by Rosario Dawson, who pops up here and there to shout "Huelga!" and rally the troops, but is little more than a background presence.

"Our problem was that we tend to tell the story in a real linear fashion and because of the time constraints, they'd look for seminal moments and explore those with the audience. So many people were left out. Motion pictures can't develop more than four characters, tops, in a movie."

So it was with surprise that Fernando Chavez discovered -- after the one and only time he has watched the film -- that one of the main characters was him, in all his full-blown adolescent angst.

"They were urging me to see the film and I hadn't had time," said Chavez, a Delano High student during much of the time period covered in the film. "But when I saw it I understood why they wanted me to see it so much. I was very surprised the character was such a prominent role. But after seeing it and having time to think about it, I can understand why that is. They were trying to portray the individual more than the persona."

It is through the sometimes troubled relationship between father and son that the film illustrates the personal toll movement-building can have on a man's family. Fernando, who moved to Delano with his family when he was 12 or 13, was a target for harassment by his classmates, who taunted him by calling his father "a communist and dirty Mexican." His time in Delano was so rough that he left town the day he got out of high school and never returned, save for his father's funeral in 1993 and another trip to show his kids where he had lived.

"Some people might say, 'How can this guy be so selfish and forget about this family,'" he said. "But to be able to accomplish and do what he did, I think he had to be very nearsighted. Sometimes along the way, you might say to some extent we were collateral damage, but I don't think there's any way to escape that."

If Chavez comes off as a disengaged figure in his son's life, Helen was anything but. In one of the film's most rousing scenes, Ferrera charges out of the house, baseball bat in hand, to confront a car load of bullies hassling Fernando, while his father sits passively inside.

"That really happened. She beat up the car," Fernando Chavez recalled. "My father was such a pacifist. My dad would always say to my mother -- he called her Mother -- 'Mother, the reason you have such aggressive, violent tendencies is because you eat meat. If you stopped eating meat, you wouldn't be so violent.'"

Though the film hints at a reconcilation between father and son, the real relationship was never that fraught, said Chavez, who, with his five sisters and two brothers, were willing foot soliders in their father's struggle, spending family "vacations" leafletting in one small valley town after another. After all, it wasn't just on their father's say-so that they understood the hardships of the fields.

"What do you think drove me to school?" said the eldest Chavez son. "Forget about toilets. Water? There was a truck and it had water and if the foreman left somewhere, good luck -- you didn't have water. Working in the heat? Now there's legislation with respect to heat, but I remember one time, I was 15 or 16 working near Mendota loading melons up a ramp in a truck. It must have been 106 or so. I remember getting up there, looking at the sun, and the next thing I knew I was under the truck and had three or four people around me fanning me with towels."

Oddly, the film -- which clocks in at a swift 101 minutes -- doesn't devote much time to showing the suffering that spurred Chavez to action. We see the farmworkers toiling, striking and marching, but their plight seems distant. Instead, the filmmakers pay strict attention to the timeline of the movement, pinging from one major action to the next, including the historic 1966 march from Delano to Sacramento to campaign for the right of farmworkers to organize and Chavez's 1968 fast on behalf of his philosophy on nonviolence.

"He looked awful," Fernando Chavez recalled. "I remember the doctor talking to the family and saying it can't go on much longer. We were all pretty frightened. I remember my mom talking to him, but he was determined."

As for the film's prospects, Fernando Chavez offered a rueful prognostication, which isn't likely to make it into the film's advertising campaign:

"We've got all the elements of a success: No action, no violence, no sex, no explosions," he said with a laugh. "Maybe it's one of those films that will do better on DVD."

But Luna said waiting around for the DVD would be a mistake because the only thing the film industry understands is opening-weekend grosses.

"We have to make sure everyone realizes and understands our stories matter and films like these need to exist and films that represent the community need to be on the screen."