2020s

Review: Mia Donovan’s ‘Dope Is Death’

Dope Is Death - Documentary

Dope Is Death illuminates the health care legacy of New York City activists. Director Mia Donovan examines how the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords introduced acupuncture therapy to heroin addicts in the South Bronx during the early 70s, and why Dr. Mutulu Shakur — the step-father of hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur — became so instrumental in the movement. Dope Is Death could’ve benefitted from more cultural context and a broader examination of the Shakur family legacy, but the 78-minute film succeeds with its specific focus on holistic healing.

Most documentaries about 70s activists begin with a rock anthem playing over archival footage of the major players. However, Dope Is Death kicks off with a James Baldwin quote and a quiet montage of the subjects’ performing domestic tasks, with Donovan immersing the audience into the mindset of each individual. During the first 45 minutes, the documentary explains how easy access to heroin in late-60s New York City inspired members of the Black Panthers and Young Lords to create detox programs that would benefit their communities. Under the guidance of Dr. Mario Wexu from Montreal, Shakur and his colleagues transformed the lives of countless addicts by stimulating the lung point of their ears. But when the FBI initiated the COINTELPRO program, the peaceful health care initiatives were suddenly disrupted and misrepresented.

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Dope Is Death - Documentary

Dope Is Death provides crucial historical context for Mutulu Shakur’s involvement in a 1981 robbery and double homicide, and also for Tupac Shakur’s cultural commentaries as a Black artist in 90s America. At the 43-minute mark, Dr. Wexu reveals that he never knew about Mutulu Shakur’s political beliefs during the early 70s, and didn’t even realize that he’d been collaborating with a Black Panther until years later. “I didn’t know anything about it!” Dr. Wexu says, a naive and telling line that correlates him with people who have reductively tagged Mutulu’s step-son, Tupac, as just a gangster rapper and wannabe actor, when in fact the late 2Pac was a highly-educated individual — thanks to his mother Afeni Shakur, Mutulu’s wife — who studied acting as a teenager at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Even though Dope Is Death spends little time informing viewers about the specifics of Tupac’s relevance and legacy, Mutulu’s own words — via archival footage — reinforce the documentary’s key themes: family, education and perseverance.

“Tupac wasn’t angry just to be angry. I think his mother’s life as a member of the Panther 21, and the Panther situation; his growing up in Lincoln Hospital with us — you know, that whole struggle — he grew up around dope fiends all his life. You know, he grew up in the tension of what we were going through with these various counterintelligence operations. In a better world, we could’ve done better with that anger. But I think he did the best that he could.”

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Dope Is Death - Documentary

Given the overall subject matter, Dope Is Death seems a bit thin with its 78-minute runtime. Donovan does indeed cover all the logistics of early-70s acupuncture programs in the South Bronx — and why certain people were targeted by authorities — but then glosses over some big reveals, such as the CIA’s rumored 1974 assassination of “The People’s Doctor,” Richard Taft. Still, Dope Is Death sticks to the point and doesn’t let Mutulu Shakur off the hook for his legal issues.

Dope Is Death feels like it could be developed into a four-part docuseries, which would allow Donovan to fully explore New York City in the late-60s/early-70s, the history of the Black Panthers/Young Lords, the Shakur family legacy and the American government’s health care relationship with Black America. As it stands, Dope Is Death will endure because of various testimonies from former addicts who turned their lives around because of progressive acupuncture programs in the South Bronx.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.

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