SDSU-IV to screen ‘Brown Buffalo’ documentary
CALEXICO — The public is invited to attend the screening of “The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo,” a film about the life of iconic Chicano attorney, activist and author Oscar Zeta Acosta, on Thursday at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley.
The screening will be preceded by a reception with complimentary tacos and beverages and followed by a discussion with Los Angeles-based writer and director Phillip Rodriguez.
Rodriguez said he’s made it a point to attend screenings for his recently released film, and has been encouraged by its reception among younger audiences who typically aren’t inclined toward historical documentaries.
“It’s good for the kids of today, and I’m really happy about that,” Rodriguez said. “Oscar spoke to them.”
In his own words, Acosta also makes it clear to the film’s audiences of his life’s purpose: to undermine the racial order of a society that had failed to recognize Latinos’ experiences during the 1960s and 1970s.
Rodriguez said his own career in the film industry has been marked by similar attempts to depict the Latino and, in particular, the Mexican-American experience in all its complexity.
“I’m going to do what I can to correct the record,” Rodriguez said. “That’s my job.”
In that respect, Acosta proved the perfect subject matter for a film by Rodriguez.
Despite having authored two semi-autobiographical books, having run for Los Angeles County sheriff in 1970 and having represented in court the organizers of the famed East Los Angeles walkouts in 1968, Acosta is most widely known as Hunter S. Thompson’s “300-pound Samoan” attorney in Thompson’s seminal work, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Although Acosta was unapologetically overweight, he certainly wasn’t just an unsophisticated sidekick, as Thompson depicted him, Rodriguez said.
For proof of that, Rodriguez said, one only need to turn to Acosta’s books, “The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo” and “The Revolt of the Cockroach People,” published in 1972 and 1973, respectively.
Readers, and especially Mexican-Americans, should instantly recognize themselves in Acosta’s frustrations, vulnerability and hopes, as Rodriguez did when he had read the books as an undergraduate.
“It was very clear to me that he was one of my people,” he said.
In many respects Acosta’s personality and existence also rendered him incomprehensible to both mainstream society and a Latino population that lacked the social and political capital to appreciate and support someone of his stature.
“They didn’t know how to deal with someone who was still so unapologetic and confrontational,” Rodriguez said. “There wasn’t enough critical mass for Raza to be able to support one of their own.”
The film itself is a dramatization that mixes archival footage with actors cast as Acosta, Thompson and others who provide mock interviews about the goings-on of that tumultuous period.
The film’s template also pays homage to the humor and exaggeration that Acosta himself employed to great effect in his literary works, Rodriguez said.
Acosta, a one-time Baptist missionary who once wrote a resignation letter to Jesus, was born in El Paso, Texas, and raised in the San Joaquin Valley. He was 39 years old when he disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Mexico in 1974.
“I think Oscar’s life was perfect in the way that it is,” Rodriguez said. “What he does is remain an enigma. He was probably fated to live his life as a very bright comet.”
“The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo” will screen at 7 p.m. Thursday at SDSU-IV Rodney Auditorium. Reception with complimentary tacos and beverages will be from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. RSVP at www.kpbs.org/buffalo
Attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta at a demonstration in downtown Los Angeles, circa 1970.