“You don’t die with a bullet necessarily—other violence takes more lives,” says a young member of the Young Lords, an organization that joined forces with the Black Panther Party in the ’60s, with the belief that heroin and methadone were weapons used to pacify resistance by Black and Puerto Rican communities in New York.
The force behind combatting this mentality is Tupac Shakur’s stepfather, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, who developed the first acupuncture detox clinic in America during the early 1970s to help heroin addicts with their withdrawal symptoms. Dr. Shakur studied and learned (along with other members who received six scholarships) the five-point ear acupuncture protocol with the guidance of Mario Wexu from the Quebec Acupuncture institute in Montreal, whose family are the founders of acupuncture in North America after learning it from Chinese holistic medicine. Throughout most of the Seventies, Dr. Shakur and other medical activists worked at the Lincoln Detox in the South Bronx.
The fighting weapon of acupuncture, used by the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and others in that period, amplified the communities’ health and wellbeing. A tool that the director of Dope is Death, Mia Donovan (Inside Lara Roxx, Deprogrammed), says she was impressed by when researching and learning about these young activists. “They really understood that at the core of everything people had to be healthy to fight oppression and change the conditions of their community. They understood the power of health care in terms of controlling people and oppression,” said Donovan. “(To them) political education was a kind of spiritual health. Building a healthy sense of identity. It’s very holistic.”
The acupuncture method is now used worldwide with NADA, the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, and has spread with no credit or recognition towards Dr. Shakur, says Donovan. It helped combat the reliance many addicts had on Methadone, a drug sold to ease withdrawal symptoms, but ultimately kept many addicts in a similar loop. Donovan says of Methadone, “it’s basically big pharma” and replacing one addiction with another.
In one scene, we see Winston Kokayi Patterson, a specialist and member of the Acupuncture Specialists Collective, seated as the student he mentors highlights each pressure point on the ear and the effect of each. She explains how one point calms the nerves and dilates the blood vessels, another targets fear and a third one deals with sadness and grief. The inherent idea is that medicine already exists in every person and this method allows it to release into the body of each individual.
An overarching philosophy, which is woven throughout Donovan’s interviews with members of the clinic and its clients, is basing it in love for one’s community, with phrases like “love your people and you love yourself” echoing that strong sense of commitment. It’s a tool for Black and marginalized people of colour to rely on themselves by “each one, teaching one,” to serve their community.
Different from her two previous films, Donovan says this is her first in which she is not personally implicated, but she still feels that it’s personal in a different way. After spending a day speaking and visiting Shakur in prison, before she began the process of making Dope is Death, Donovan felt connected to his views on healthcare considering she had been exposed to drug treatment programs from the age of 15 because of her step-brother. “He suffered from drug addiction most of his life and was on and off of methadone maintenance.”
Donovan adds, “I was also inspired by how these young members of the group provided this analysis that was outside of the individual experience. They understand that there were factors out there in society that contribute to feelings of self-esteem. They were trying to rebuild a sense of community. For me, there was something so beautiful and loving about this approach.”
Dr. Shakur’s rejection of Methadone as a solution and the positive impact the acupuncture method had on the street’s most vulnerable addicts was not the only success of the clinic; at its core, it was part of a bigger political agenda to fight oppression. Addicts turned into clients, who turned into ex-clients who then became part of the movement, which ultimately strengthened both activist groups. The clinic educated them on police brutality, injustice in the courthouse, the healthcare system and more.
One member recalls a big protest they had in which the streets had to close and he realized they had become an issue in the South Bronx and a threat to the Establishment. “They were confronting big pharma, the war on drugs and corporate institutional medicine, which was controlled by the state,” says Donovan. “They basically proposed community control to a population that, under white supremacy, was being oppressed by the system. On so many layers, the clinic was political.”
In the context of Nixon’s War on Drugs and the clinic members’ political associations with black (panthers) and Puerto Rican Nationalist groups (Young Lords), the Establishment saw these acupuncturists as a threat to their profits and plans. Despite support from the Doctors collective, who were also targeted as a way to threaten the clinic’s success, the Lincoln Detox was shut down in 1978 and weakened the collective effort between members.
Persistent, Dr. Shakur managed to open a new clinic in Harlem by the name of BAANA (Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America), but with the lack of government funds, the clinic was not as accessible and allowed some people to return to the streets.
In 1986, Dr. Shakur was arrested and charged with 60 years in prison for his involvement in the 1981 robbery of a Brinks armored truck in which $1.6 million was stolen in cash and resulted in the death of two officers in Nanuet, New York. Under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act, clients and some people associated with Dr. Shakur and BAAANA also became targets, despite little to no evidence. Identified as the ringleader of this robbery and even placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives at one point, Dr. Shakur is still in prison now despite financial backing and support for his case.
“I hope the film will reframe the idea of criminals in the U.S and also help people understand the criminalization of drugs and political prisoners,” says Donovan.
Unlike other films that use minimal archival footage as a peek into the past, Dope is Death is dominated by striking footage from the ’60s and ’70s. That being said, this film is not just a reflection of the past, it is something that has not changed according to Donovan. “Access to good health care is still a huge problem. We see that with COVID-19. I was reading in the New York Times that in some states Black Americans are dying six to seven times more than white people,” she observes.
Donovan found it hard to address the long and layered history of systemic racism in North America in her film and feels there is more to the story. “I’m just revealing the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more that needs to be told.” Despite this, she learned valuable lessons throughout the process.
“Throughout making this, I learned that my position as a white director and person is to listen and not take as much space. That we need to educate ourselves, listen more and stand in solidarity.”