‘Dope is Death’ frames acupuncture as a tool in the fight for social justice

Mia Donovan’s film ‘Dope is Death' traces the connection between the emergence of acupuncture and the social issues plaguing minorities, focusing on New York City in the 1970s.


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Columbia’s True/False Film Fest is widely known as a vivid celebration of art and culture. However, some of the most highly-acclaimed films featured each year often uncover the darker corners of society and history. These stories span time and location to shed light on how different people experience the human condition.

“Dope is Death,” directed by Mia Donovan, takes viewers on a journey to the South Bronx and Harlem between the late 60s and early 80s. At the time, these predominantly African American and “Latinx” communities were fighting a drug addiction epidemic. A City Limits article estimates that New York City was home to 200,000 heroin addicts by the early 1970s.

Through Donovan’s film it is clear that many of the individuals at the center of the problem believed that the heroin in their communities was provided by the government as an oppression tool. Those tempted by the drug daily knew that being high led to complacency and submission, hindering efforts to improve the quality of life for minorities in America.

Recognizing the life-ruining effects of addiction, activist groups like the Black Panthers and Young Lords took action. They took over the failing Lincoln Hospital, but not without resistance by city government and police. Filter magazine recapped the overtaking of the facility, stating that “cops in riot-gear broke through the barricade, arresting 15 people.” Activists persisted, though, and eventually, Lincoln Hospital began to offer solutions to the communities’ complaints.

At the time, the most widely-accepted solution to addiction was the use of methadone, which blocked the symptoms of withdrawal. For many receiving this treatment, the method simply replaced one dependency with another, not providing much liberation for addicts. Donovan’s film traces the journey of a handful of progressive leaders that sought to offer an alternative treatment.

Driven by their desire for a holistic solution to addiction, these leaders rolled out the People’s Drug Program, bringing acupuncture therapy to the city. Dr. Mutulu Shakur was at the forefront of the operations of Lincoln Detox. Shakur built a lasting legacy in the South Bronx, turning addicts into activists through natural addiction recovery paired with political education.

Shakur’s career saw an early end when he was incarcerated as a result of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO Act). The act deemed Shakur’s associates a criminal enterprise and placed responsibility for their acts onto Shakur himself. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison in association with the robbery of a Brink’s armored truck.

Donovan’s film aimed to tell Shakur’s story in alignment with his anticipated release from prison. The director imagined her work as a celebration of the doctor’s reunion with his family and others touched by his work. Donavan appeared following the screening of her film to explain the derailment of this vision.

“Originally, Mutulu was supposed to be released in 2016,” Donovan said. “He wasn’t released, so I had to step back and rethink the film.”

Donovan was joined by Juan Cortez, a former patient at Lincoln Detox and actively practicing acupuncturist, to further emphasize the lasting change Shakur was able to implement.

“Mutulu brought people together from all different backgrounds … to give people basic rights,” Cortez said.

Shakur’s work was instrumental in the popularization of acupuncture healing in America. The doctor’s son, Mopreme “Mo” Shakur, also spoke after the screening to advocate for his father’s methods despite his continuing incarceration.

“The treatment they were using can really still be used today to help the opioid epidemic and other addiction,” Shakur said.

“Dope is Death” contextualizes America’s long history of oppression of minorities while illuminating the origins of acupuncture as a form of healthcare. The film offers commentary on social issues, from the incapacitating effects of drug addiction to mass incarceration and the lack of access to equal and adequate healthcare in our country.

Edited by Sophie Stephens | sstephens@themaneater.com

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