He was an activist who confronted police brutality decades before the advent of Black Lives Matter. He was a friend and foil to legendary journalist Hunter S. Thompson. He was a native son of the Central Valley who struggled with his heritage and identity before becoming a revolutionary lawyer and a counterculture hero.
Oscar Zeta Acosta isn't a household name, but a new PBS documentary airing Sunday should go a long way in making his remarkable life and legacy better known. Directed by Phillip Rodriguez, "The Rise and Fall of Brown Buffalo" does what great documentaries do: It informs while it entertains, filling your mind with challenging, provocative ideas.
The hourlong documentary charts Acosta's personal and political development, starting with his childhood in Riverbank – near Modesto – and running through his time as a Chicano rights author, a civil rights activist and a radical legal force. To tell the story, Rodriguez combines historical footage of Acosta with re-created live-action sequences that feature actors as well as a few well-known California political figures.
"Brown Buffalo" uses re-enactments to zero in on Acosta's complicated relationship with Thompson, whom Acosta met in a bar in Aspen, Colo., in the 1960s. Thompson later would depict Acosta as his partner-in-crime "Dr. Gonzo" in his seminal 1971 work "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a characterization that resulted in tension between the two friends.
The documentary also contains a mystery: What happened to Acosta, who, in 1974, disappeared during a trip to Mexico?
It takes on timely and pertinent subject matter.
To watch "Brown Buffalo" is to be reminded that the shooting death of Stephon Clark by Sacramento police on March 18 is simply the latest tragedy in a long continuum of conflict between the authorities and minority communities.
Through Acosta's story, Rodriguez reminds audiences that those who challenge powerful institutions like cops and the courts often are maligned and marginalized as they stand up to powerful forces at great personal risk.
Acosta exhorting 1960s protesters to stand up to police was echoed outside of Golden 1 Center Thursday night when activists, after briefly shutting down Interstate 5, surrounded the arena and put it on lockdown.
It features two of California's most prominent politicians in cameos.
One minute you are watching professional actors bring Acosta's story to life, and then suddenly Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Los Angeles mayor and current gubernatorial candidate, pops in for a cameo.
You've just wrapped your head around that when Xavier Becerra, the state attorney general, appears onscreen, playing a tough-minded judge who tangles with Acosta and later watches in horror as Acosta shows up at his house and sets his front lawn on fire.
Becerra, who grew up in Sacramento, played in rock bands when he attended C.K. McClatchy High School, and he is no stranger to performing. Watching him play "horrified" onscreen as his yard becomes a bonfire is worth the price of admission.
It is a well-researched documentary, not a hagiography.
With "Brown Buffalo," Rodriguez said he wanted to create a complete portrait of Acosta, and not just pay reverence to well-meaning myths.
"A lot of civil rights heroes become like dead metaphors and have been co-opted by the Democratic party of Apple computers," Rodriguez said. "They've been drained of their contradictions, of their humanity and their dissent.
"I made this film because I wanted to teach kids that you don't have to be perfect to be political. You don't have to be some kind of saint to effect change."
It is about discrimination that infected our region not long ago.
Growing up in Riverbank the late 1940s and early '50s, Acosta felt marginalized in his town despite his dad being a World War II Navy veteran.
Acosta was junior class president, for example, but the father of his high school girlfriend turned him away because of his ethnicity.
Acosta would later serve in the Air Force. But the more he tried to be "American," the worse he felt. And the more he tried to be "Mexican," the worse he felt. In the end, he could only be himself: overweight, brash, profane and constantly fighting to find his voice.
Though he was an American citizen, he had much in common with the undocumented kids marching for their rights in California today.
Acosta ultimately identified with the brown buffalo, because it "was the one animal hunted by both cowboys and Indians."
"What is clear to me is that I am neither a Mexican nor an American," he says in the film. "I am Chicano by ancestry and a brown buffalo by choice. And I suspect the gods of war are not done with me yet."
It corrects misconceptions about Acosta put forth by Thompson in "Fear and Loathing."
In "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the story of two chemically altered pals whose desert road trip winds up in Sin City, Thompson portrayed Acosta as a "300 pound Samoan."
Why didn't Thompson describe Acosta as the proud Mexican American he was? Why portray him as dark, corpulent and almost animal-like?
Rodriguez restores Acosta's dignity by recreating arguments between Acosta and Thompson after "Fear and Loathing" hit big. Acosta hounded Thompson, and Rolling Stone Magazine (where the story first appeared) so much that he was able to get a book deal for himself.