We may need to rethink how we use the term “action movie.” It’s not a phrase we’d normally apply to a documentary about a woman who co-founded one of the most important labor organizations in the history of the United States, but maybe we should. Dolores, which tells the story of Dolores Huerta, contains constant action: moving, marching, political fighting, and also, tragically, the violent kind we associate with the traditional, scripted action movies. Early on in the film, Huerta herself recalls being told by her United Farm Workers (UFW) co-founder Cesar Chavez in reference to their initial activism for farm workers, “Unless you and I do it, it’s never going to happen.” And so they do and she does for decades, perpetually driven to go, build, and act.
Dolores is director Peter Bratt’s attempt to wrangle the story of all of that action into a documentary. Even those unfamiliar with Huerta’s life and work will realize quickly that her exceptional story is long overdue to be told to a wide audience, but it’s a massive undertaking, and Bratt has his work cut out for him. Huerta has spent decades fighting for social justice, aligning herself with the working class and working poor, and leading the charge for labor and civil rights on specific issues too lengthy to name here.
And therein lies the primary challenge in making a film about her. The scope and scale of Huerta’s work is enormous, and the context of it – farmworkers’ rights, organized labor and environmental justice in the 1960s and 1970s, the way feminism fit into these movements – is even harder to process in a 95-minute documentary. A key decision with a subject of this breadth is whether to focus in-depth on one aspect of Huerta’s life and impact – the multi-year grape boycott she coordinated, for example, or her work as a feminist activist – or to present an overarching survey of who she is and what she’s done. Bratt takes the second approach, and the film is a scan of Huerta’s life and work that moves at a breakneck speed.
Bratt commits to telling the story from different angles, capturing the professional, personal, and her legacy. There are interviews from scholars, politicians, high-profile contemporaries like Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem, and several of Huerta’s 11 children, all on top of the now 87-year-old Huerta. There’s also video footage from news reels and of 30- and 40- year old interviews with people like Chavez and Huerta herself from the height of her activism. It’s a lot: a lot of perspectives, a lot of stories, and lot of reflections, and it seems no aspect of Huerta’s life goes un-glimpsed. But a glimpse is all there is time for. Even if you’d like to reflect longer on her impact on Bobby Kennedy’s political platform, for example, or the way she was eventually pushed out of the UFW leadership, tough luck. The film has already moved on.
Although there’s no question Bratt and the documentary itself have an admiring view of Huerta, one of the things I appreciate most about Dolores is the honest discussion of how Huerta’s choice to prioritize her work over her family impacted both her and her children. Both Huerta and her sons and daughters interviewed talk about the sacrifice, and speak frankly about the pain/scars that remain as a result of Huerta’s decisions. Bratt gets at some of the ways that being an unconventional mother shaped opinions of Huerta as well. But these parts of the story are presented with balance, and Huerta’s children clearly admire her as well. Rather than getting mired in the issues of motherhood, abandonment, and social expectation, these facets of Huerta’s life are acknowledged and then, whether due to a judicious choice by Bratt or because the pace of the film requires it, we march forward.
Dolores’ perspective is not deep, but it is almost dizzyingly broad. Perhaps the idea was to overwhelm audiences with this story. If audiences deserve to be utterly inundated by information about someone, Dolores Huerta is certainly worthy of that distinction. There may not be any way to do justice to Huerta’s story, and for now we have this. It’s not enough, but it’s a good start.