PBS documentary, The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo, chronicles the life of Chicano lawyer, activist and novelist Oscar Acosta, better known as "The Brown Buffalo."

By Lena Hansen
March 22, 2018 04:57 PM
Raul Ruiz/PBS

Oscar Acosta, better known as “The Brown Buffalo,” is a larger than life figure that has fascinated many generations. The documentary The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo, airing March 23 on PBS, revisits the life of the Chicano lawyer, activist and novelist.

Acosta, who was six feet tall and over 200 pounds, was hard to miss when he showed up at Los Angeles courtrooms in colorful ties and lived his life with as much novelistic flair as the characters in his novels — The Autobiography of The Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People— which are filled with poetic narratives of bad drug trips, drunken adventures and sexual escapades. But he’s most remembered leading civil rights demonstrations and remains an important figure of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s in Los Angeles.

His disappearance in 1974 during a trip to Mexico remains a mystery and he is presumed dead.

Oscar Acosta at a Civil Rights demonstration in downtown Los Angeles circa 1970.

The documentary was directed by Phillip Rodriguez, who has also made films about Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and comedian George Lopez, among others. “He was an untimely man that society, that psychiatry, that race awareness simply wasn’t prepared for,” Rodriguez told The Los Angeles Times. “He’s this contradictory, difficult, charismatic pain in the ass.”

Portrait of Oscar "Zeta" Acosta.
Annie Leibovitz/PBS

For the documentary, Rodriguez uses dramatizations of Acosta’s life based on his writings and interviews with family, friends and colleagues. Actor and producer Jesse Celedón plays Acosta in the film, which chronicles his childhood as the son of a peach picker in El Paso, Texas, his fight against discrimination and his love life.

Oscar Acosta with his wife Socorro Acosta.

“He shows us you don’t have to be perfect to dissent,” Rodriguez told the The Los Angeles Times.  “You can have human desires. You can be flawed. You can be fat. You can be funny. You can be drunk. You can be randy and still be effective.”