Dope is Death (2020)

Dope is Death
Director: Mia Donovan
Writer: Mia Donovan, Sofi Langis
Part of: this human world Film Festival
Seen on: 9.12.2020

1973 in New York. Faced with a heroin epidemic and no real support outside their community, Mutulu Shakur, along with people from the Black Panthers and The Young Lords, opens an acupuncture clinic that is supposed to help with getting people clean. Their radical and holistic approach was successful and its legacy is still present today.

Dope is Death is an interesting look at community organizing efforts and Black (and brown) history in the USA – a history that is way too easily forgotten. It does run a tad long, though, and loses a little in the last part. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing.

The film poster showing Mutulu Shakur making the Black power fist.

I’m no history buff, really not, so in me it is perfectly obvious what is still being remembered overall, and what has become almost forgotten, specialist knowledge. The story told here is a good example of that. The heroin epidemic of the time was something I was aware of, however vaguely. Everything else not so much.

The acupuncture clinic here – started when activists actually laid siege to Lincoln Hospital, making demands and getting a clinic of their own – was a reaction to the fact that the conventional way of treating heroin addiction was simply to hand out methadone and not much more. Personally, I’m a sceptic regarding the efficacy of acupuncture, but what certainly works is giving people a place to turn to, where they can feel safe. And whether it’s just that that worked or whether acupuncture is a necessary part of it, doesn’t really matter when you look at the fact that it was a successful program.

A Black man relaxing with acupuncture needles in his ear.

Watching successful community organizations is always great and Donovan found a lot of archive footage as well as talking to the people who were directly involved at the time (except for Mutulu Shakur who has been imprisoned for decades now, and Donovan was denied an interview by the prison administration). This brings you an idea of what went down at the time.

Unfortunately part of the story are also official attempts to sabotage the clinic. It is here that the film fell a little apart for me. It felt a little long and I felt a little lost with it. That being said, watching the clinic’s legacy remain even when the clinic itself had to close is a message of hope for organizers everywhere. Things leave a mark. Let’s do something.

A Black woman marking another Black woman's ear with a pen.

Summarizing: very interesting.

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