A Lasting Effect, by Mat Bradley-Tschirgi
Although the title of this documentary is Cesar’s Last Fast, its scope is really on Cesar Chavez’s entire life. Directors Richard Ray Perez (co-director of Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election) and Lorena Parlee (director of the IMAX documentary Mexico) make good use of vintage footage from Chavez’s career as a civil rights activist and union leader for American farm workers. There are also contemporary interviews with several friends and family members of Cesar Chavez, including actor and activist Martin Sheen.
The scope of what Cesar Chavez was able to accomplish in his life was quite amazing. His humility in raising awareness of low wages for farm workers through nonviolent protests while living in relative poverty off of little more than canned beans is something to behold. He held fasts as a form of protests throughout his career, but his final water-only fast in 1988 lasted 36 days. It was a self-imposed fast meant to bring attention to pesticide use on farm workers and their families. The use of pesticides was causing cancer in the children of the farm workers who lived near the fields. He ended the fast at a large public church service where he had to be carried to his seat. The communion bread he ate was his first food since his fast started. He died five years later.
The structure of Cesar’s Last Fast doesn’t really work. The footage of Cesar Chavez fasting in bed while his family looks on as his medical staff attends to him is genuinely moving. The fasting is something he is doing because he believes in the cause. He could have stopped at any time, but that he continued to go on for 36 days is nothing short of remarkable, not to mention extremely deleterious to his health. The intercutting of this footage with the more typical look at his life through interviews and news footage is nothing short of jarring. The nature and length of Cesar Chavez’s last fast is a fascinating enough topic for a documentary on its own. Trying to cram in Chavez’s entire life story takes the focus away from the titular final fast.
The end of the film brings up the great point that despite all of Cesar Chavez’s work to improve conditions for farm workers, fair wages and working conditions are still uncommon. A recent interview with a grape picker notes that they have a huge quota of grapes to pick every day or else they got fired. They are scared to even go to the bathroom lest it affect their quota. Pesticides are still being used in farming in huge amounts. Again, this is an excellent topic that could have been a documentary on its own, but it feels like an abrupt epilogue when thrown into the greater narrative of Cesar Chavez’s life.
Richard Ray Perez and Lorena Parlee have directed a good documentary in Cesar’s Last Fast, but not a great one. A more focused documentary would have been more powerful than the scattershot approach seen on display here. The information on display is interesting, it just could have been presented a bit better. Tragically, co-director Lorena Parlee died in 2006 before this documentary was completed. She receives a dedication at the end of the film.