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Documentary features true story of Chicano civil rights leader

Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta, Las Vegas, Ceasar's Palace, April 1971,
Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta, Las Vegas, Ceasar's Palace, April 1971,

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Oscar Zeta Acosta was a giant in the Chicano civil rights movement that rocked Los Angeles in the 1960's and 70's.   

Many only know of Acosta as the inspiration for the Dr. Gonzo character in Hunter S. Thompson's drug-fueled book, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." While Acosta was legendary for his raucous ways, he meant a lot more to Los Angeles than the Doctor Gonzo character portrays. 

The documentary "The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo" seeks to tell the real story of the legendary activist and author. 

Phillip Rodriguez directed and co-wrote the film. He spoke with Take Two's A Martinez about the mark Acosta left on the world and why Rodriguez was driven to revisit his legacy.

Interview Highlights

Why did you want to tell Oscar Zeta Acosta's story?

Oscar’s story had been left for dead. It had been mischaracterized as the legacy of a buffoon, a sidekick, a Tonto – of an inadequate savage. It was Hunter Thompson’s decision to write Oscar as a drug-addled, 300-pound Samoan in 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,' which is where we know Oscar from. So it seemed to me only fair to correct the record. They were colleagues, they were pals, and in a certain way they were kind of obsessed with one another for a while, and I think they inspired one another. And things at one point went south… 

Why cast actors to re-enact interviews instead of using the original source material?

God bless PBS because this wouldn’t have been made anywhere else, but very often those documentaries have a kind of formula, and it's lots of old folks talking about the past. And we tried it. When I saw the footage, I felt kind of dissatisfied. It wasn’t doing Oscar's chaos and madness justice. So I thought, 'Let’s make the story feel more urgent.' I wanted Oscar to matter to young Latinos specifically and to young people in general, so we made a film that we thought would appeal to a younger set of folks.

Why did Acosta run for L.A. County Sheriff in 1970?

This is a time before the federal government has to come in and discipline L.A. law enforcement. This is a time when the vast majority of the Sheriff's Department and the LAPD were very white. They had basically occupied East L.A. and provided those citizens -- the brown one -- a treatment that was uncivil and often criminal. And Oscar was responding to some deaths that had taken place in the L.A. County Sheriff's jail. Oscar believed that they were homicides on the part of the Sheriff's Department, so Oscar's response was marvelous. In order to draw attention to these injustices, Oscar decides to run for the office of Sheriff, with no money, with no resources. With simply his gall and his talent for performance on television and his capacity to get the press which loved him … because he was so funny, self deprecating, bright and peculiar. He was able to get on T.V. quite a bit. His candidacy really drew attention from the radical chic’ers in the hills of Hollywood to East L.A. people.

"General Zeta" runs for LA County Sheriff in 1970

Why revisit Acosta's story at this time in history?

So often now, when we see a documentary about a Mexican-American, it's always a rural figure, really Rousseauian– a noble savage kind of figure. Oscar was a lawyer, he was educated, he was a novelist, he was urbane, impatient, rude, hungry, and he was entitled. He doesn't fit that paradigm of the Mexican-American hero that society offers up ad nauseum. Oscar is an exuberant dissenter. One of his mottoes was, 'The revolution doesn’t have to be a drag.' I can be serious and have fun at the same time. To me, the kids obviously are being put upon economically and racially. It seems to me that someone like Oscar, who’s so fun and so ridiculous, and effective, and dissenting– he’s a much more appropriate figure from that era for young people today.

"The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo" airs on PBS Friday, March 23, at 9 p.m.