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‘Brown buffalo’: Documentary sheds new light on Chicano author, lawyer Acosta

Phillip Rodriguez thought that Oscar Zeta Acosta is an enigma.

This is the reason the filmmaker wanted to delve into Acosta’s life.

And the result is the documentary “The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo,” which airs at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 27, on New Mexico PBS, Channel 5.1.

Director Phillip Rodriguez. (Courtesy of Rafael Cardenas)

“I feel it is a storyteller’s obligation to shine new light on stories, such as Acosta’s, that have been systematically neglected or distorted by mainstream culture,” Rodriguez says. “In a society where the Chicano experience is so often reduced to caricature, a sensitive, nuanced rendering of this complex brown man was long overdue.”

Acosta’s powerful literary voice, brash courtroom style and notorious revolutionary antics made him a revered figure within the Chicano movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

He also offered one of the most brazen assaults on the status quo and white supremacy seen at the time.

Oscar Zeta Acosta, right, with friends, 1960s. (Courtesy of the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives, UC Santa Barbara Library)

Yet Acosta, a lawyer and author of two ground-breaking autobiographical novels, is known more for his turn as Thompson’s bumbling sidekick in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” than for his own work exposing racial bias, hypocrisy and repression within the California justice system.

The film explores issues of racial identity, criminal justice, politics and media representation while revealing the personal story of a troubled and brilliant man coming to terms with his identity and finding meaning in the struggles of his people, and it took some time to get made.

Rodriguez acquired the rights to Acosta’s story right out of film school.

But nothing came to fruition.

As frustrating as it was, he had to go back to the drawing table and reimagine a new way of telling a story.

He had actors signed on for the feature film. Ultimately, he decided to take the documentary route.

Rodriguez brings Acosta to life by employing a cinematic style as unorthodox as his subject – weaving archival footage and images with dramatized portrayals of Acosta, Thompson and other key figures and moments of the era.

The script is culled from Acosta and Thompson’s writings and interviews, as well as letters and journalistic and personal accounts.

Actors Jesse Celedon and Jeff Harms portray Acosta and Thompson, while an ensemble of performers depicts a collection of friends, foes and fellow travelers in a series of playful re-creations that go beyond a mere presentation of facts, pointing toward a deeper truth.

The film brings narrative style to documentary filmmaking and paints a portrait of a fascinating, complex and enigmatic man.

“I wanted to do this in a hybrid way,” he says. “This was so we can speak in a language that is suitable for young people. Oscar was a character bigger than life. You couldn’t really play him straightforward. There are so many dimensions to his character.”

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