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The Rise And Fall Of The Brown Buffalo

Airs Tuesday, March 27, 2018 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta, 1971.

Credit: Courtesy of City Projects, LLC

Above: Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta, 1971.

A Look at the Unorthodox Life and Complex Legacy of Oscar Zeta Acosta: The Chicano Movement’s Forgotten Activist Hero, Attorney and Literary Celebrity

“The Rise And Fall Of The Brown Buffalo” is a fresh and genre-defying film about the life of radical Chicano lawyer, author and countercultural icon Oscar Zeta Acosta — the basis for the character Dr. Gonzo in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” written by his friend, legendary journalist-provocateur Hunter S. Thompson.

Filmmaker Phillip 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.

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

The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo: Trailer

This is a fresh and genre-defying film about the life of radical Chicano lawyer, author and countercultural icon Oscar Zeta Acosta — the basis for the character Dr. Gonzo in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," written by legendary journalist-provocateur Hunter S. Thompson.

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

The Chicano Rights Movement

Explore the historic 1968 “Walkouts” when tens of thousands of Mexican American and Chicano students walked out of five East Los Angeles high schools, protesting academic prejudice, dire school conditions, and demanding systemic reform. Oscar Zeta Acosta emerges as the main spokesman and celebrity attorney for the mushrooming “Brown Power” movement, defending the jailed organizers of the revolt.

Yet Acosta, author of two groundbreaking 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.

Channeling the spirit of the psychedelic 60s and the joyful irreverence of “Gonzo” journalism, “The Rise And Fall Of The Brown Buffalo” shows Acosta’s personal and creative evolution playing out against the backdrop of a society in turmoil.

The Sixties and In Search of Identity

Explore the first meeting and the wild relationship between Oscar Zeta Acosta and Rolling Stone journalist-provocateur and "Hells Angels" author Hunter S. Thompson in 1967. During a time of immense social unrest nationwide, and a culture of white supremacy and societal racism, Acosta continues searching for his self-identity.

From his origins in segregated rural California to his stint as a Baptist missionary in the jungles of Panama, to his radicalization in the Chicano movement of the late 60s and finally to his mysterious disappearance off the coast of Mexico in 1974, director Rodriguez offers a vision of a complex figure at once wholly unique and emblematic of a generation.

Social Justice Attorney

Explore Oscar Zeta Acosta’s brief stint as a legal aid attorney in Oakland, California’s poverty program in 1966, and his commitment to battling social injustice and racial/economic discrimination on behalf of the underprivileged. After a mental breakdown, depressed, and hooked on meds, Acosta leaves Oakland, California for Aspen, Colorado in search for his self-identity.

Channeling Acosta’s own extravagant mythmaking — the man was known for his enormous ego as well as his prodigious appetites for drugs and alcohol — Rodriguez draws upon Acosta’s writings, legal transcripts and other archival materials, combined with striking visuals and animation, to explore Acosta’s larger-than-life story.

Photo credit: Courtesy of City Projects, LLC

Socorro Acosta (Oscar's wife) and Oscar Zeta Acosta, date unknown.

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

Photo credit: Courtesy of The California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives (CEMA), UC Santa Barbara Library

Oscar Zeta Acosta (far right) with friends, circa 1960s.

“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,” said Rodriguez. “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.”

Filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez On Activist Oscar Zeta Acosta

Filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez explains the artistic direction behind "The Rise And Fall Of The Brown Buffalo" and bringing Oscar Zeta Acosta's story to life.

Relevant now more than ever, this 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.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Oscar Castillo

Oscar Zeta Acosta at a demonstration in downtown Los Angeles, circa 1970.


This full episode is available to stream on demand through April 20, 2018.


"The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo" is on Facebook, and you can follow @BrownBuffaloPBS on Twitter.

Follow filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez @PRrodLA on Twitter.

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Major funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding provided by Latino Public Broadcasting, California Humanities and the Office of Los Angeles City Councilman Gilbert Cedillo. The film is produced by Rodriguez’s Los Angeles-based production company, City Projects, LLC.

Director/Producer/Writer: Phillip Rodriguez. Cinematographer/Editor/Animator: Claudio Rocha. Writer: David Ventura. Executive Producer: Benicio Del Toro. Producer: Alison Sotomayor. Associate Producer: Ricardo Lopez. Original music by Alejandro Cohen and Aaron Drake.


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