Review: ‘A Song for Cesar’ reveals the beating heart of culture-driven activism

Labor activists carrying flags march along a dirt embankment in an image from the documentary “A Song for Cesar.”
Activists march on behalf of the United Farm Workers movement in an image from the documentary “A Song for Cesar.”
(Jon Lewis / Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Yale University)

Every once in a while, it’s good to be reminded that art can lift an important movement, and that certainly was the case with La Causa, Cesar Chavez’s groundbreaking farmworker movement in the ’60s and ’70s. A new (but long in the making) documentary from Andres Alegria and Abel Sanchez, “A Song for Cesar,” collects a wide chorus of testimonials — and a few performances — from artists across music, art and theater to paint a picture of what that culture-driven activism looked like.

Chavez, a music-loving zoot suiter in his youth who never passed an opportunity to scour a record store, understood the power of songs and art when it came to amplifying his message of fighting for better working and living conditions for the campesinos in California’s fertile fields. Malaquías Montoya speaks to how Chavez inspired the flourishing of his artistic growth. Luis Valdez and Agustín Lira recall how his support for their sharp-edged skits on the backs of flatbed trucks became the basis for the legendary El Teatro Campesino.

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Music is what gets the most screen time, between the filmed recording sessions of protest songs (many featuring the spirited participation of co-director/musician Sanchez) and remembrances — from Joan Baez, Taj Mahal, Carlos Santana, Daniel Valdez, Cheech Marin and countless others — of the era’s lively, youth-infused and diverse benefit concerts supporting the UFW’s mission. As Tower of Power member Emilio Castillo says at one point, “The times affected the music, and the music affected the times.”


Though often roughly assembled in its sweep of archival footage, witnessing and performance, as a celebration of a monumental figure in politics and culture, “A Song for Cesar” doesn’t need to be slick to reveal its beating heart. It’s the kind of labor of love that brings recent history into colorful and tuneful focus. And with conditions for farmworkers these days hardly tolerable still, maybe this movie can be absorbed as a song “from” Cesar too.

‘A Song for Cesar’

In English and Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Not rated

Playing: Starts March 11, The Landmark, West Los Angeles