Sheds light on the life and work of Dolores Huerta, an all-but-forgotten organizer from California who co-founded the United Farm Workers union alongside Cesar Chavez.
In her famous work The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, American journalist Mignon McLaughlin wrote, “Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.” Often seen on the walls of liberal college dorms, this aphorism may as well be the tagline for Peter Bratt’s new documentary, Dolores. Spanning pretty much the entire second half of the 20th century, Bratt’s film sheds light on the life and work of Dolores Huerta, an all-but-forgotten organizer from California who co-founded the United Farm Workers union alongside Cesar Chavez.
The film occupies a specific and oversaturated space in the documentary world: its subject is still alive, and the film attempts to brand her as a “forgotten hero.” So many of these films fumble in getting us to believe that these supposed heroes actually stand out; they stuff us full of platitudes that would fit nicely in a 4th grade social studies textbook but fail to convince us of their subject’s genuine singularity. This is where Dolores really shines.
It’s difficult to imagine watching the credits role and feeling indifferent about the life and accomplishments of Dolores Huerta. Bratt has crafted an ode to an incredible woman, but it’s so much more than that: through a combination of stock footage and meaty interviews with Huerta and her peers, he succeeds in explaining the tactics behind Dolores’s accomplishments. We leave not only with a list of milestones but a thorough understanding of how each came to be.
Much of the film zeroes in on Huerta’s conception of and successes within United Farm Workers in California. A native-born citizen and self-proclaimed “American girl,” she recounts early dreams of being a dancer or a musician. However, she quickly notes how the hellish working conditions for farmworkers in northern California stole her focus. The laborers on the farms were, disproportionately, members of Huerta’s own Mexican-American community, and she felt an increasing urge to even out the scales that were ludicrously tipped toward agribusiness giants.
After gaining a significant following on her own and then joining forces with labor icon Cesar Chavez (to whom the pro-labor chant “Sí se puede!” is often attributed, despite the fact that it came from Huerta), she became instrumental in passing large swaths of legislation that regulated agribusiness nationwide as well as providing farm workers with a strong, fully-functioning union.
This is by far the most illuminating elements of Dolores. Gloria Steinem shows up to discuss how her New York circle brushed against Huerta’s strong Catholic ideals and eventually convinced her to identify as a feminist, while Huerta’s racial insight helped sharpen Steinem’s own political agenda. We see the verbal tactics Huerta uses to convince New Yorkers to boycott grapes grown in California. We hear her talk us through an effective strategy for speaking to the pain of an underserved group, of the seemingly-obvious fact that in order to represent a group of people you have to actually live like them.
All of this adds up to a fascinating, deeply insightful look at the mechanics of a successful revolution. Bratt’s interviews are shot through with compassion, wit and a heavy dose of goodwill which keeps these informative stretches from becoming didactic. We get to watch smart people discuss their life’s work with no sense of academic distance, which turns out to be far more illuminating than a dissertation ever could.
What’s illuminating isn’t necessarily affecting, though. Dolores could’ve been an entertaining, insightful watch without much of an emotional core, lavishing in Huerta’s organizational genius without letting us into the brain of someone creating this much change. Luckily, Bratt has included interviews with many of Huerta’s 11 children. By far, the most memorable moments come toward the middle of the film when they’re asked about the cost of having such a politically active and prominent mother. We learn that she would often leave her children for months at a time, pawning them off in random combinations on family friends or even relative strangers. Nearly everyone cries. Incredibly, though, no one goes for the throat: each child is resolute in their belief that their mother led an important life.
This may be Dolores’s only noticeable flaw, albeit a small one. While it’s more thorough than two-dimensional idol worship, it’s still sort of idol worship. We do see a handful of detractors berate Huerta for having children out of wedlock or bringing “outsiders” into a predominantly white community, but it’s not until the final 10 minutes, when Bratt depicts Arizona’s decision to remove her from a proposed ethnic studies program in public schools, that we actually get a fully-formed sense of her opposition. The film isn’t nearly as one-sided as something gooey-eyed like Elliott Smith’s Heaven Adores You, but one is left wondering how and why any reasonable person would oppose the work that Huerta has done.