MOVIES/Ed Rampell

New Biopic Chronicles UFW Co-Founder Dolores Huerta, Working Class Heroine

An ideal film to open over Labor Day weekend, Dolores is a stand-up-and-cheer biopic about one of the American left’s iconic heroes, Dolores Huerta. Peter Bratt’s award-winning 97-minute documentary made me want to leap out of my seat with joy, as Huerta comes of age politically and evolves, accompanied by a 1960s/1970s soundtrack evoking that rebellious period.

Born in New Mexico and raised in Stockton, California, Huerta attains political consciousness under the tutelage of community organizer Fred Ross Sr. In the early 1960s, Huerta and Cesar Chavez organized the United Farm Workers, unionizing Latino and Filipino campesinos against the powerful growers who profited off of the sweat of their brows.

Dolores depicts the fasts, the strikes in the fields, the long marches, and the famous grape boycott that shook the world. It unspools like a Hispanic version of John Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath with Dolores as a fiery, feisty Preacher Casey or Tom Joad, “all alone in the dark,” tirelessly organizing agricultural workers. The UFW went on to win historic collective bargaining rights and other gains for those who toil to feed America. Later in her life, in 1988, a policeman hit Huerta with his billy club at a demonstration against George H.W. Bush, breaking four ribs and shattering her spleen.

Throughout her life, Huerta has encountered other leading figures of the US left, as Dolores depicts through well-edited news clips, archival and original footage, and interviews. Bobby Kennedy, as New York’s newly minted senator, flew to California and supported the UFW’s struggles. Huerta went on to endorse his insurgent presidential campaign and stood beside Kennedy on the stage of L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel on the night he won the California primary, moments before he was killed by an assassin.

During the grape boycott, Huerta relocated to New York, where she met Gloria Steinem and became part of the feminist movement. Although Huerta espoused non-violent resistance, Angela Davis—the Marxist professor who advocated armed revolution—is also an admirer of Huerta. (Both Steinem and Davis are interviewed in the film.)

The subject of one of the FBI’s most intensive manhunts, Davis reminds viewers that “the FBI knew how dangerous Dolores was.” It was she who came up with the UFW slogan “Si se puede!,” or “Yes, one can,” which Barack Obama co-opted for his 2008 presidential campaign. Huerta went on to receive the Medal of Freedom from Obama.

Unlike recent documentaries about Gore Vidal and Al Gore, Dolores is no one-sided hagiography and does not spare its subject from criticism. Her disputes with the late Chavez and others are not glossed over.

Huerta was a nontraditional woman confronting patriarchy, both in society at large and within the movement. When I interviewed her regarding the 2014 feature film Cesar Chavez, Huerta told me, “Unfortunately, the people that wrote the script never talked to me, which was sad, because they never really knew what my contribution to the movement was.” She cited the movie’s depiction of a historic UFW contract being negotiated by white male attorneys. In fact, she contended, “I negotiated the contract.”

Dolores doesn’t blink when considering the thrice-married Huerta’s unconventional private and family life. Some of her 11 children forthrightly state how difficult it was having a nonconformist, rabble-rousing labor leader as a mother who was often on the road, instead of at home. This candor is to the film’s credit and demonstrates a faith in its protagonist. Whatever perceived “flaws” Huerta may or may not have had, her remarkable tenacity, organizing skill, and nobility greatly outweighed them.

Huerta and Bratt were interviewed recently at an L.A. movie theater, where the director, writer and producer explained the role of Mexico-born musician Carlos Santana — who has an executive producer credit — in making Dolores. “This whole process was started by Carlos with a phone call … He said, ‘We need to make this film.’ He put a stake in the ground and financed the film.”

Bratt also talked about the film’s soundtrack, which included hits by Santana: “We tried to immerse the audience in the time and place. So we use several songs of the ’60s and ’70s, because these are anthems and they bring up a whole slew of memories for people.”

Peter and his brother Benjamin Bratt, the popular actor, are sons of an indigenous Quechua Peruvian mother. Asked if being of South American ancestry gave him more empathy for Dolores’ Hispanic subject matter, Bratt replied, “Of course. You see this brown skin right here?” he asked lightheartedly.

At 87, Huerta remains sharp, upbeat, and committed. She continues to advocate peaceful civil disobedience, in part through the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which promotes grassroots organizing. In 2016, she traveled to Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Dolores Huerta is an embodiment of the Mexican-American women portrayed in the fact-based 1954 feature film Salt of the Earth, made by blacklisted Hollywood filmmakers, wherein Latinas play a frontline role in a miners’ strike. Dolores — the documentary and the woman — prove that, to paraphrase Lennon (John, not Vladimir), “A working class heroine is something to be.”

Dolores theatrically opened Sept. 1 in New York, and Sept. 8, 2017 in Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif. Dolores will be released nationwide and air on PBS’ POV in February 2018. (See

Ed Rampell is an Los Angeles-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist (see <> or <>).

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2017

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2017 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652