Four Questions with the Filmmakers of Rubén Salazar: Man in the Middle
February 25, 2014
Programs Coordinator Alli Jessing spoke with the filmmakers of the upcoming documentary film Rubén Salazar: Man in the Middle, which tells the story of the life and death of prominent Civil Rights-era journalist Rubén Salazar, who was killed by an L.A. County sheriff's deputy in 1970. The film will premiere at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. Producer/Director Phillip Rodriguez will introduce the film and participate in a discussion with the audience following the screening.
Eye Level: Much of Rubén Salazar's story involves a tension between cultural assimilation and ethnic identity. What are the unique resources that this documentary uses to explore that tension?
Phillip Rodriguez: Salazar was the archetypal "man in the middle" —a pivotal figure who embodied many of the shifts that occurred during the 20th century. As a journalist, he respected the old objectivity and then, with equal dedication, embraced the new subjectivity. As an American of a historical moment, he cautiously exchanged Greatest Generation-era stoicism and conservatism for Boomer entitlement and idealism, though he never bought into any of these values wholesale. As a Mexican-American, he played by the Anglos' rules and then proceeded to help loosen their grip on the culture.
Salazar's newspaper and television reporting, the testimony of close friends and associates, and his personal diary and home movie footage, to which the filmmakers were granted exclusive access, tells the story of Salazar's evolution and its emotional toll.
EL: You spent two years in court fighting for access to documents and files related to the case, which authorities initially refused to release. Can you tell us about one or two particularly powerful items you found in the released documents?
PR: These files gave us access to new information that in turn helped us identify and locate witnesses that the press had not reached in over 40 years.
Tapes from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department files allowed us to hear and share the moment-by-moment drama of August 29, 1970 from the department's dispatchers and field officers point of view.
The files also provided a wealth of images, many of which we used in the film. Among other things, these images were used to visually recreate the trajectory of the tear gas projectile and other events that occurred at the Silver Dollar bar.
EL: What impact has Salazar's death had on Latino-American journalism over the last 40 years?
PR: Salazar was an unprecedented figure in Latino-American journalism because he was a reporter and op-ed writer at one of the country's most powerful newspapers and also the director of a Spanish-language news station. His accomplishments have yet to be matched.
His death marked a turning point in the history of Spanish-language television and influenced the ideological trajectory of one of America's most powerful newspapers. And these articles offer a more thorough analysis of Salazar's impact on Latino-American Journalism: "Perspective on Latinos : Salazar: a Pioneer, Not a Martyr", "The Trailblazer: Rubén Salazar was a man of many firsts who paved the way for other Latino journalists," and "Frank Sotomayor Speech About Rubén Salazar."
EL: When viewers tell their friends about this documentary, what do you hope they say they learned from this film?
PR: It's a story with many elements that are very much a part of our national conversation today: freedom of press, state surveillance, and what it means to be an American. This is a story about a regular guy who, motivated by principle, challenges an abusive authority at great risk to himself. It's a classic American story.
The premiere screening of Rubén Salazar: Man in the Middle will be at the American Art Museum Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. The film's broadcast premiere on PBS is Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 9:00 PM ET.