‘Dope Is Death’ Documentary: How Dr. Mutulu Shakur Fought For Wellness In The Bronx

‘Dope Is Death’ Documentary: How Dr. Mutulu Shakur Fought For Wellness In The Bronx

Dr. Mutulu Shakur. Photo courtesy of "Dope Is Death"

An increasing number of films are documenting the encounters between African Americans, the police and the U.S. government that are front and center among our cultural concerns today. The latest addition to the narrative is a completely compelling and well-produced feature documentary, “Dope Is Death.”

On the surface, “Dope Is Death,” directed by Mia Donovan, is the story of how Dr. Mutulu Shakur, stepfather of Tupac Shakur, along with fellow Black Panthers and the Young Lords, combined community health with radical politics to create the first acupuncture detoxification program in America in 1973 in the Bronx, New York. However, a deeper exploration of the reaction by the “authorities” to such a project ends up providing a gripping tale that illustrates the dynamics of the decades-old power struggle tied to race in America.

This is about the reaction to the challenge of a system and what can happen when a visionary project and its offshoots are eventually deemed too dangerous to exist in America. Told through the eyes of various people directly involved in the movement and development of the detox center, “Dope Is Death” takes us on a journey back to the 1970s when New York City was a warzone in many parts of the boroughs, especially the Bronx. Heroin had infiltrated neighborhoods and left many listless and discarded. This is the backdrop for the Black Panther party expansion that sought to clean up neighborhoods. We experience this tug-of-war via a mixture of present-day voiceover and compelling footage from the ’70s to witness the juxtaposition and true fight to reclaim a region from sheer hopelessness.

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Film poster courtesy of “Dope Is Death”

The impetus for what would become Shakur’s acupuncture center is actually birthed from the takeover of a substandard area hospital, leading to negotiations with authorities which then led not only to better conditions but consent for a detox center. Enter President Richard Nixon’s administration, which had its own plans to clear the streets of thieving drug addicts by introducing the FDA-approved drug, methadone. However, there is pushback from many in the community due to the belief that methadone is simply the exchange of one drug for another. Once Shakur and the Panthers learn, from a chance reading of a New York Times article, about the healing wonders of acupuncture, they are off to learn the technique from a pioneer in Canada, return, and begin, to the chagrin of state authorities, to have such success with it that the methadone program begins to be seen as obsolete in their area.

From there, the hunt and observation of Shakur and the Panthers leads to his eventual 60-year sentence and imprisonment and punishment for allies, both Black and white, with charges surrounding an armored truck heist.

“Dope Is Death” is as much about political persecution as societal, for after all, they are oftentimes one and the same. Perhaps part of the tragedy is that the interplay of race, power, economics, and politics is still very much in play today as it was back in the day, be it amplified currently by technology.

Director Donovan captures the spirit of the moment without pandering, allowing the characters to share their story in their own ways while crafting a work that moves at the pace of a thriller. The only downside is that we are probably looking for even more footage once the film closes because somehow, while these stories are from the past, one cannot help but feel an eerie forecast of things to come with new characters, new settings, and the same basic underlying issues.

Dope is Death will be available in select theaters and virtual theaters on April 30, 2021, with special sidewalk event screenings in New York City. The VOD (video-on-demand) version will be available on Apple beginning May 14, 2021.

Caregivers and patients at the acupuncture center. Photo courtesy of “Dope Is Death”

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Lauren DeLisa Coleman is a Digi-Cultural Trend Analyst and Producer. She’s the founder of http://lnkagency.com/ and Vapor Media, and a commentator on public sentiment and tech on MSNBC
Agency representation: Leading Authorities. Author: “America’s Most Wanted: the millennial” an Amazon, “Best: New Media Studies” pick: http://amzn.to/KmsuJ8