March 31 is Cesar Chavez Day, yet I spent 95 minutes yesterday with a documentary where Chavez plays a peripheral character. If was up to the filmmakers behind the new documentary Dolores, March 31 would just as well be Dolores Huerta Day. Peter Bratt’s film begins as a series of arrivals. A montage of handheld shots follows legendary community organizer and union leader Dolores Huerta as she powers into venues across the nation, the camera like a plow being led by an ox who knows the land as she does her own skin. Huerta was the co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association alongside Chavez, yet hers is a history literally erased from American textbooks. This documentary is laid out primarily as a historical corrective, one to restructure history away from its patriarchal bent and toward a more egalitarian vision.
The film plays like a textbook, unfolding along the timeline of Huerta’s life — her true birth in 1955 when she met community organizer Fred Ross and was subsequently introduced to Chavez. From the mid-50s on, Huerta would give her life to the betterment of farm workers and low-wage laborers. She was a champion of the proletariat, an advocate for the immigrant and a soldier for a better social vision for all. Her spirit is infectious, and the film does good to immerse its audience into her charisma. Much of that comes from watching Dolores herself. Bratt’s film is best when in culling its most compelling images from what seems like an endless wealth of archival footage. That footage spliced together paints an immersive social texture that makes its viewers feel as if they were experiencing a social revolution in real time. Yet where its information is vast, its presentation is often unfortunately rote.
There are two talking heads for every second of 16mm footage. Its music is rich (much like its Latin heritage), yet its cues fall flat, used mostly for transitions of time or as the soundtrack overlaying montages. Dolores is naturally a figure of intersection, and while Bratt lays out all his thematic threads, he doesn’t allow himself the time to tie them all together. Fortunately, that unwieldiness is one of the most endearing qualities of the film because its true of Huerta’s very essence. Her life embodies such an immense witness of America’s uniquely violent history (racism, sexism, labor oppression, etc.), and she remains such a stubbornly enigmatic character that it’d be impossible to pin down all these ideas. Even if the film merely touches on its big subjects, it at least accomplishes what it set out to do: to correct history and give the inimitable Dolores Huerta her place amongst our heroes. It’s a testament to the sustainability of the true American spirit. Our actual pioneers are the ones that fought and sacrificed even when they remained unacknowledged. In a time such as ours, Dolores delivers a vision of community organization and social flourishment that can usher in a new reality for America’s masses.
Colin Stacy (@bcolinstacy) is a writer, husband and father in Fort Worth, Texas. His writing has been featured at Reel Spirituality, Movie Mezzanine and 100 Films | 100 Scenes. He’s also the creator of the “Written and Directed by Elaine May” t-shirt.