Review by Edwin Pagan
“I keep telling myself that it was an accident. The victim could’ve been any other guy who came off the street for a beer, yet I know that anybody who tries to stand too long between hostile camps is going to get hurt.” – Journalist Bill Drummond on the death of Rubén F. Salazar
Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle is a one-hour investigative documentary set to make its premiere on PBS on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 9:00 PM ET (check local listings). The film covers the life and mysterious death of award-winning journalist Rubén F. Salazar, whose untimely death on August 29, 1970 amid the epic National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War demonstrators (with 30,000+), has been cloaked in mystery for four decades. His enigmatic death has sparked wide and far-reaching theories that have elevated his stature to that of a bona fide martyr.
Salazar was killed when a Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputy fired a tear gas projectile into the hole-in-the-wall bar the Silver Dollar Café, where he’d momentarily tucked into, striking him in the temple. He’d retreated there with fellow KMEX newsman Guillermo Restrepo seeking a respite from the escalating chaos taking place out on the streets as a result of the war protests at Laguna Park (now Rubén F. Salazar Park) and surrounding area – more than a mile away. Authorities claimed they were responding to a report of an armed man inside the bar, while his death wasn’t official confirmed until hours later. The documentary pivots on one simple question: “Was the 42-year-old journalist’s death an accident, or was he targeted?”
Fellow journalists, news editors, friends, activists, and his daughter, Stephanie Salazar Cook, retell the scope of the events surrounding his life and death through first-hand accounts. Even L.A. County Sheriff deputy Thomas H. Wilson – the man who’s actions led to Salazar’s death (whether intentional or otherwise) – candidly participates in the film, providing a somewhat bravado account of his hand in the tragic occurrence and the subsequent highly-charged inquest by the sheriff’s office.
“I keep telling myself that it was an accident,” adds close friend and colleague Bill Drummond. “The victim could’ve been any other guy who came off the street for a beer, yet I know that anybody who tries to stand too long between hostile camps is going to get hurt.”
“We were in such a hurry to create a martyr, that we forgot about the man,” says former La Raza Newspaper editor/photographer Raúl Ruiz in the doc’s introductory segment.
It is varied and contradictory outlooks such as these that have fueled the controversy over Rubén Salazar’s exact death for more than 40 years with the Mexican American community fearing a possible criminal injustice: was it a freak accident or did it occur at the tail end of malicious intent? It also echoes the dichotomies in which Salazar functioned. On one hand he went from being a fair-skinned Mexican immigrant of privilege indifferent to the plight of the Chicano political movement, to its most articulate in-house agitator.
Salazar was a pioneer in the news reporting business as the first columnist for a major U.S. newspaper of Mexican decent, working first as a foreign correspondent in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam, and then as bureau chief in Mexico City during a time when newsrooms were almost entirely populated by a white reporting and editorial staff.
Although it presents many of the myths that have become associated with Salazar’s ever-growing legend, Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle doesn’t hold back on pointing out the man’s flaws, too. For a period during his early career as a journalist, there was vocal contention about his lack of interest with issues connected with the extended Mexican community and the doc presents this in stark detail. Although born in Ciudad Juárez, México, Salazar was raised in a conservative right-wing family in El Paso, Texas, who sought to negate their Mexicaness in an effort to pass into white American society. Coming from this narrow-sighted milieu, Salazar initially refused to cover Mexican affairs as a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He wanted, instead, to be a news journeyman who could cover a varied degree of stories of interest to the mainstream readership of the newspaper without being pigeon hold. Salazar would ultimately come around to emphasizing with the struggles of the U.S.-based Mexican community, becoming an outspoken singular voice for the disenfranchised and Chicano civil rights struggle.
In early 1970, after being recalled from his bureau post in México City, Salazar would leave his prestigious perch at the LA Times to branch out on his own as news director of a small Spanish-language TV station WMEX, where his inner radical voice finally exploded. Given the lack of diversity in newsrooms during the period – and tumultuous social unrest stirring in the Mexican American/Chicano community – the ultimate path of his reporting would stick out dramatically and made him an undesirable voice to both the LAPD and regional politicians, and many say, a marked man as well. The stories covered by Salazar during this latter tenure are still at the zenith of the most relevant social and economic issues facing both Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans in the United States: immigration, border development, and drug trafficking.
The documentary posits many of the same questions that have elevated Rubén Salazar into a cult hero of sorts and propelled him to martyrdom status without falling prey to any of the speculation that often surround these foggy accounts, made all the more blurry via the passage of time. Like solid journalism itself, the film simply reports both sides of the story and serves it up before the viewer to make a determination.
What it does clarify is Salazar’s mixed trajectory via his own words, culled from personal and professional writings that help provide an intimate insight into the underlying sentiments at the core of his marked transformation into a ‘Chicano rights activist’ of sorts. The film does a good job of laying out both the historical and personal accounts of the events leading up to Salazar’s death. Project director/producer Phillip Rodriguez offers a no-nonsense account of the times in which these events were taking place, and paints a full portrait of Salazar as a cub reporter disconnected with his personal heritage to that of an accomplished journalist who had come into a heightened, personal self-realization of his calling and duty as a chronicler of the times in which he lived.
Rodriguez makes good use of motion graphics to bring attention to the salient facts that literally float off the pages of archival documents, Salazar’s own articles, and personal journals—the latter also providing a first-person voice-over account to what would otherwise be a very complicated narrative. There is also computer-generated imagery (CGI) that acts as ligatures connecting archival photographs that are effectively edited into the overall film without feeling forced. One such device is used as we begin at a bird’s-eye view of East Los Angeles and descend onto the Silver Dollar Café where Salazar was killed.
After a two year struggle with the L.A. Sheriff’s Department (and U.S. Department of Justice) to gain access to the department’s inquest findings on Salazar’s death, the film’s producers filed a lawsuit along with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), and in December 2012 volumes of never-before-seen original photos, film and other documents were turned over by the sheriff and the county. While the report’s assessments are referenced, little is shown of these documents, or challenged, which would have made for very compelling value-added visuals and storyline as an “investigative” doc. But that is another movie, perhaps a 90-minute piece.
In the end, Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle is a tight and engaging 60-minute journey into the tragic end of a dedicated reporter—but somewhat flawed figure—who’d finally struck a balance in both his personal and professional life, when his life mysteriously ended at the height of his powers at the tender age of 42. By extension, it is also a look at the complex duality faced by a people caught in a purgatory of national and racial politics that continues today. An hour well spent with a documentary worth the watch.