When it comes to inspiring stories of challenging the racial biases of the establishment, they don’t get much better than that of Dolores Huerta. Beyond her indefatigable support of Mexican migrant workers, beyond rubbing elbows with everyone from Bobby Kennedy to Barack Obama, Huerta’s life was a remarkably impressive conjunction of timing, righteous indignation and forward thinking social activism. There are few people who have had such an indelible impact on the development of American culture and yet remained so marginalized in the context of mainstream historical awareness — and thankfully, documentarian Peter Bratt has crafted a compelling film that appropriately redresses that oversight.
Bratt’s film provides a thorough chronology of Huerta’s rise to activism, from her early culture clash struggles as an American-born child of Latino descent to her co-founding of the United Farm Workers of America with Cesar Chavez to her continued influence, at age 87, in the present political climate in which her decades of effort have been set back. Through it all, Huerta comes across as a rational voice speaking out against overwhelming forces, leaving the audience dumbfounded at the lack of public acknowledgement she’s received.
The reason for Huerta to have been so unjustly swept under the rug, as posited by Brett and a parade of notable interviewees, comes down to institutionalized sexism. While Chavez has earned the lion’s share of the credit for unionizing migrant workers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Huerta was there every step of the way — and in many cases was the driving force behind the movement. Huerta was criticized due to details of her personal life, including ad hominem attacks centering on her relationship with her 11 children, fathered by three different men. And while such denouncements from her opponents did little to discredit her position, interviews with Huerta’s children establish that her preoccupation with politics did indeed have a deleterious effect on her offspring. Still, Bratt’s warts-and-all approach largely succeeds in justifying Huerta’s decisions — even her children acknowledge that the work she’s done is so important that it’s difficult to begrudge her their unconventional upbringing.
Huerta is an undeniably captivating figure, and her life story more than warrants not only this documentary, but a feature adaptation as well. Bratt’s film is too workmanlike to be considered exceptional on its own filmic merits, and his narrative is overstuffed with talking heads and period footage that render his pacing distinctly rushed. But those stylistic quibbles aside, Dolores is a competently crafted film about a riveting subject that more than merits an audience. While that audience is almost certain to exclude those in favor of building a border wall or rescinding DACA, the film will likely have no trouble in resonating with its target demographic, even though that may amount to little more than preaching to the choir. Still, given the current state of our nation’s regressive attitudes toward immigration and gender politics, Huerta’s story is unfortunately timely — and Bratt’s work shines a necessary light on a crucial chapter of American history that we would be remiss to repeat. Not Rated. Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.