American history is one marked by tragedies, oppression and inequality, but the way that history has been told is perhaps the greatest of these tragedies. Systematic attempts to sweep social terror under the rug while omitting women and people of color from the narrative are hallmarks of both American popular culture and history. One of the victims of such omission is 87-year-old Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) and still-working political activist. Director Peter Bratt and PBS present her untold story in the excellent documentary “Dolores,” playing in Atlanta in a limited run at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
“She’s the first general I followed into war,” playwright Luis Valdez said in the film. In the broadest sense, the film covers Huerta’s entire life story, up to now and her reception of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By co-founding UFW with Cesar Chavez, she positioned herself at the center of the Chicano movement, which continues the fight for Mexican-American rights to this day.
A lesser film would only focus on those broad sketches, but “Dolores” explores the conflicts and complexities within Huerta’s life. Furthermore, the film isn’t afraid to dive into Huerta’s more controversial sides, particularly as a mother of 11 children with multiple marriages and the unfair criticism she faced for it. One of the film’s most touching sections features interviews with Huerta’s children. They express gratitude for their mother’s work but regret her relative abandonment of them in favor of the movement.
One of the most fascinating conflicts, threaded carefully throughout the entirety of the narrative, revolves around the sexism in the UFW — often directed toward her by her male colleagues. In particular, Bratt works with Huerta and Chavez’s tempestuous but friendly relationship, showing how Chavez’s status as a man allowed his accomplishments to overshadow hers. “Dolores” is a thoughtfully intersectional film, examining the spider’s web of factors that led to Huerta’s unjust erasure from the cultural conversation. Equal time is devoted to exploring her identities as a Mexican-American, a woman, a mother and a labor leader as well as the ways those identities interact with one another, the strength they give her and the oppression she suffers because of them.
Right from the opening credits, Bratt makes a bold statement about his intentions with the film. Using a montage of news footage, he openly refuses to let Huerta be written out of history. Conservative TV hosts attempt to belittle her on the basis of her “Republicans hate Latinos” statement at a Texas high school (spoiler alert: they belittle her) only to be drowned out by her accomplishments. Within the first five minutes, Bratt surveys the breadth of Huerta’s life story and complexities in a clear, concise manner full of vigor — a mirror to the film’s brevity and tonal attitude.
The only true issue with “Dolores” is just how much of a conventional biographical documentary it is. For a figure as heroically subversive as Huerta, a more compelling, formally radical approach (such as Raoul Peck’s direction of “I Am Not Your Negro”) would have been a better fit — and much deserved one. Instead, she and the audience are treated to a standard styling of talking-head interviews mixed with archival footage. That functions well enough in presenting the narrative, which makes the film more palatable for a wide audience, but ends up making it feel too much like a high school in-class video at times. Still, the footage is edited seamlessly by Jessica Congdon, with a slick sense of flow that seldom falters in its engaging storytelling. The incorporation of archival footage is the film’s most interesting component, often juxtaposing pre-existing materials; a particularly powerful scene juxtaposes the sound of a George H.W. Bush speech on peace with the ruthless government putdown of protesters.
The film itself is a form of public service, especially when it would have been easier for Bratt to phone in a simple puff piece. With all the talk about removing monuments that pay tribute to our past sins, we should be thinking about building statues of people like Dolores Huerta to replace them. First they made a film. Now, build her a statue.