Review by Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions
Protests, armored car heists, revolutionaries, fugitives on the run from the FBI all sound like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster, but they are all part of Dope Is Death, a documentary about the young men and women who brought healthcare to an underserved community in East Harlem and the South Bronx.
It’s 1973 and New York City is about to explode with revolution. In the late 60s and early 70s New York was plagued by heroin. The number of addicts was growing, and nothing was being done about it by the government. It was a public health crisis, and it was left to the people to solve it. Dr. Mutulu Shakur, along with his fellow Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican/Nuyorican Young Lords, established the first detox and recovery center at Lincoln Hospital in East Harlem. Against the rules and against all odds they took matters into their own hands to heal their community.
At the time, the only approved method for treating heroin addiction was to prescribe methadone, a maintenance drug still in use today, but that treatment merely replaced one drug for another.
Shakur began treating addicts using acupuncture, which he discovered was more effective in helping patients get off drugs. The program grew and soon his patients were recovering and becoming activists. Along with their treatment, they were being given a political education. The program and the community-based movement grew together.
The story spans decades, from the late sixties to the present day, and contains an almost unbelievable amount of information for an 80-minute film. Dope Is Death seeks to educate its audience by placing the events in an historical context. Director Mia Donavan uses extensive archival footage and interviews with the people who were there while the events unfolded. We hear from some of the leaders of the movement as well as some of the clinic’s patients. It’s a piece of American history seldom if ever taught in classrooms.
Even though most of the events depicted took place between the late sixties and mid-eighties, the stories are still incredibly relevant today. The political and social movements of the 1960s were a response to injustices in American society that still remain, and are the same drivers of the political and social movements of our own time.
Dope is Death is a powerful and compelling film. It’s an inspiring story, and one that gives us hope that more underserved communities will rise up and save their own people. It’s been said that those who do not study history are destined to repeat it. This is a history worth studying.
Dope is Death will be in select theaters and virtual theaters on April 30th, with special sidewalk event screenings in New York City. The theatrical and event release will be followed with a VOD release on Apple & Altavod on May 14th.