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[Note: In the wake of the Hot Docs festival’s postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select entries that elected to premiere digitally.]
In 1970 New York City, a series of ground-shifting, life-saving events took place in relatively quick succession. It’s astounding that they aren’t more widely known. But then again, it isn’t: They revolve around community activism, alternative medicine and the self-determination of poor people, most of them black and brown. Not exactly standard American textbook material. Mia Donovan’s Dope Is Death sheds welcome light on a forgotten, and still urgent and instructive, chapter of civic history.
The film begins in the present day, at a walk-in acupuncture clinic in Harlem. Patients extol the benefits of the treatment they receive — an established protocol of five needles in each ear to alleviate symptoms of addiction withdrawal as well as stress and trauma. A devoted practitioner confesses that it wasn’t until well after he become involved in the program that he learned it owes its existence to left-wing activists, people who took matters into their own hands a half-century earlier in the South Bronx.
Through a remarkable excavation of archival footage and stills, combined with new interviews with members of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and other social justice organizations of the period, Donovan traces the way a coalition turned part of a municipal hospital into a lifeline for neglected patients — and how, after the initiative enjoyed a few productive years of government support, the powers that be cut the cord.
This is also, to an extent, the story of Mutulu Shakur (stepfather of Tupac Shakur). A black nationalist who became an acupuncturist, he led the Bronx program and, after it was defunded by Mayor Edward Koch, its next iteration in Harlem. As Donovan delves into how Shakur and other radical figures were targeted by authorities, the doc draws lines of correlation that aren’t always clear, even if their cautionary resonance is compelling.
In 1970, the Young Lords, a group of Puerto Rican activists, had been working in collaboration with the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement to demand improved health care for residents of the South Bronx. Seen briefly but powerfully, a very young Juan González (of Democracy Now!), at the time a member of Students for a Democratic Society and the Young Lords, articulates the debilitating struggle of the underprivileged to meet their basic needs, and his words of 50 years ago are still so apt today, they might make you weep.
Frustrated by the lack of response to their demands, the Young Lords occupied the area’s Lincoln Hospital to protest its deplorable conditions and meager quality of care. Negotiations with Mayor John Lindsay’s administration followed, and among the swift results was the establishment of a detox unit at Lincoln. New York at the time, the South Bronx in particular, was in the grip of a heroin epidemic. Among the searingly evocative material Donovan has uncovered are street scenes of people in full nod in broad daylight.
One of the more pernicious myths about drug addiction is that it’s a problem the underclasses bring upon themselves. And one of the most damning moments in Dope Is Death is a Black Panther’s comment in a vintage clip: After the Panthers had confiscated heroin from local dealers, he says, they knew not to turn it in to the police, who would only funnel it back into stricken neighborhoods for their own financial profit.
In the face of all the systemic resistance to meaningful change, organizers turned the Lincoln Detox Community Program into a model of self-care and political consciousness-raising. With the help of a Montreal maverick, they learned, administered and taught acupuncture, which offered proven benefits while methadone, the government-approved method of treating heroin addiction, only subbed one addiction for another. (But it reduced street crime, thereby solving the problem from the middle- and upper-class white majority perspective.) Lincoln’s patients in turn became healers. As an M.D. involved in the initiative says, “It was like seeing people being born.”
A doped-up populace is not an alert or insurgent populace — this is the core premise of the Lincoln program. Shakur’s importance as an enthusiastic and inspiring leader is evident. (Incarcerated for more than 30 years, he’s seen only in old footage because prison authorities wouldn’t permit Donovan to film him.) His colleagues and collaborators vividly recall the raids, arrests and torture they endured in the era of J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal COINTELPRO maneuvers against the left. As Donovan broadens the film’s scope to take all this in, its clarity suffers; even though the gist of the intertwined testimony comes through, there’s a distracting vagueness concerning relationships and events, chief among them an infamous and deadly holdup of a Brink’s armored truck.
But Donovan is in sync with her subjects’ exceptionally resilient and creative revolutionary spirit, and incorporates jolts of Nuyorican Movement poetry to eloquent effect. Her conversations with people like mental health worker and activist Cleo Silvers are memorable not just for the information they relay, but for putting a down-to-earth face on a group as unjustly demonized as the Black Panthers.
A 1980 clip signals the eventual downward trajectory of this initially triumphant story: presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, campaigning in the South Bronx, shouting down locals who dare to interrupt him. But the triumph was major: free quality health care, a vision become reality. And it was holistic in every sense of the word, unlike much of Western medicine and public policy, which tend to treat symptoms rather than underlying conditions. Regarding the mental health issues that acupuncture treatments have helped him overcome, a contemporary patient emphasizes what he’s learned about himself and his struggles: “It’s not anger I feel. It’s hurt.”
Venue: Hot Docs (Canadian Spectrum)
Production company: EyeSteelFilm
Screenwriter-director: Mia Donovan
Producer: Bob Moore
Executive producers: Mila Aung-Thwin, Daniel Cross
Directors of photography: Glauco Bermudez, Mia Donovan
Editor: Mia Donovan
Composer: Ramachandra Borcar
Sales: Cinetic Media
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