At a peaceful demonstration in 1988, Dolores Huerta was beaten so violently by police that her spleen had to be removed. It was a gruesome setback for the woman who, alongside Cesar Chavez, had long been fighting for the rights of exploited farm workers. Yet Huerta refused to be defeated and, at 87 years old, her work continues to this day. Even so, her activism hasn't had the same widespread recognition as Chavez's.
That's something Dolores fights to change. Director Peter Bratt has effectively compressed Huerta's history-making life into a rousing 95-minute documentary. Dolores chronicles not only Huerta's activism, but her struggle to raise a family even as she led a crusade for America's farm workers.
The first act is packed with tributes to Huerta from politicians, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In one scene, Obama freely admits to borrowing Huerta's rallying cry, "Sí se puede"—Spanish for, "Yes, we can."
But it becomes clear that her dedication to social justice rivals that of her high-profile admirers. The film recounts Chavez and Huerta's founding of the United Farm Workers union, Huerta's crucial role in a nationwide boycott of abusive grape growers during the 1960s and her courageous decision to call out sexism among her allies.
Bratt relies on the standard-issue mix of talking-head interviews and grainy archival footage. Showier filmmaking techniques would have distracted from Huerta's extraordinary experiences, which come into focus largely through interviews with her sons and daughters. Their recollections of their mother's all-consuming work result in some of the film's most affecting passages—they believe that while their mother's role in history divided the family, it was a price worth paying.
Dolores is a sobering portrait of a woman whose every victory has been met with daunting horrors. Yet the film is filled with reminders that the fight is worth it, including a scene where Huerta shuts down an interviewer who patronizingly asks if she ever feels like getting her hair done and visiting a spa. That, Huerta declares, "would be a terrible waste of time."
SEE IT: Dolores is at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org. 4:30 pm and 7 pm Sunday, Nov. 12. $9.