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Review: ‘Sundance Film Festival: ‘Dolores’’

Variety logo Variety 1/24/2017 Dennis Harvey
© Provided by Variety

Cesar Chavez remains the icon of U.S. agricultural labor rights, but his close colleague Dolores Huerta merits an equal place of reverence. Peter Bratt’s energetic, engaging “Dolores” argues that only basic sexism has denied her that rightful status, while celebrating the 86-year-old’s myriad accomplishments in a feature documentary whose running time necessarily condenses much of an exceptionally eventful, still-active life.

While Huerta may not yet get her full due in the history books (at least compared with the late Chavez), the fact that she is still regarded as a serious force by anti-union and other conservative forces was borne out a decade ago, when her observation that “Republicans hate Latinos” in a campus speech prompted her name to be banned from some public school curricula, among other enraged right-wing reactions. Huerta shrugged off the controversy, and indeed, one thing “Dolores” makes clear is that she doesn’t care about being liked, so long as she is working toward the larger good. That stubborn indifference to most outside criticism is, in fact, one of the most likable things about her.

Huerta has sacrificed a conventional private life in order to be a highly public advocate and agitator. The verbal attacks against her have been primarily personal — many of them hinging on her two divorces, 11 children with three spouses, and her rejection of taking a “stay-at-home mom” role to raise them. She is dismissive of such criticism because it doesn’t reflect her values and priorities: Asked in one vintage TV interview if she ever yearns for “what most women want,” i.e. having their nails done and so forth, she call such things “wastes of time.” She’s also aware that a man with a similar history as hers would never have been judged a moral failure for emphasizing work over domestic life.

Bratt’s fast-paced chronology charts Huerta’s rapid rise to positions then unprecedented for a Latina: At age 25, she was already writing proposed legislation as part of California’s progressive Community Service Organization; at 30, she co-founded the Agricultural Workers Assn., which would eventually become United Farm Workers. The attempt to unionize field laborers in California, then nationally — many of them Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants — was an exceptionally long, tortured, sometimes violent one that was vehemently opposed by most growers, who had police, the courts, and politicians on their side.

Aware of racial inequities from an early age, Huerta saw the often miserable labor conditions and pay for workers in agribusiness as a reflection of a racist power structure. She and Chavez “walked the walk” by living in the poor communities for which they advocated. While he was widely assumed to be the “true leader,” she was in fact the indefatigable architect of many attention-getting protest tactics.

Theirs was a stormy if highly productive relationship in which he, too, sometimes took umbrage at her unwillingness to take a deferential gender role. Decades later, that same tacit (and sometimes not-so-tacit) gender bias was probably the principal cause behind her not gaining the UFW presidency after Chavez’s death, eventually leaving the union altogether to pursue her own, more diverse, interests of advocacy .

Many of the events depicted in here unfolded amid the backdrop (and with the support of) other, interrelated social-justice movements of the ’60s and ’70s, most notably Chicano Power and Women’s Liberation. Though Huerta herself was a model of female empowerment — often to the irritation of foes, as well as to the regret of the husbands and children from whom she was frequently absent — she was curiously slow at first to embrace the cause of empowerment. A close friendship with Gloria Steinem, among other factors, soon changed her thinking.

“Dolores” crams a great deal of information, themes, and diverse archival materials into a sharp, cogent whole, tied together by latter-day interviews with Huerta, family members, and esteemed colleagues/supporters from Steinem to Hillary Clinton, Angela Davis, Luis Valdez and Art Torres. (Detractors are only heard in TV news clips.)

Yet it feels a bit inorganic when Bratt can’t restraint himself from a celebratory climactic montage of people dancing, based on the thin pretext that Huerta once dreamed of being a professional dancer. Still, you can forgive him for wanting to communicate a sense of joyful gratitude, even if the object of his thanks maintains a single-minded focus that’s pretty much all business, all the time.

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