Arthur News School of Fish
Still from Mia Dononvan's 'Dope is Death'

ReFrame Review: Dope is Death

Written by
Spencer Wells
January 21, 2021
ReFrame Review: Dope is Death
Still from Mia Dononvan's 'Dope is Death'

Admittedly, the thought of needles entering the body makes me fairly squeamish. In many cases, I have resorted to averting my eyes from the screen in scenes that depicted such actions. I’ve been this way since I was a child, and to this day I don’t particularly fancy the idea any greater. This film certainly opened my eyes towards a practice that I am curious to see the benefits of, but have long since considered to be painful.

Mia Donovan’s Dope is Death is a historical insight towards the adoption of acupuncture as an effective treatment for drug addiction in a time of state-sanctioned racism. The film uses documentary footage from the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, focusing on inner-city life in the South Bronx. With the rise of the Young Lords – the band of revolutionaries representing the Puerto Rican communities in America – this group worked in conjunction with the Black Panthers to help establish a direct action against drug pushers and the police that were actively interfering in their progress. Stories from party members and citizens alike provide resounding and powerful testimonials to conflicts between authority and activists – the latter fighting for the community in resisting the spread of illegal narcotics. These events spanning to the present day showcase a rollercoaster of triumph and turmoil in establishing a movement that would mark itself into the passages of both medical and civil rights.

Following the revolutionary takeover of the Lincoln Hospital in 1970 – inspired by a slew of complaints by patients that the facility’s duty of care was not being met – the Young Lords helped establish, through negotiation, a detox centre that allowed for addicts to receive a substance-free rehabilitation. This was also critical in helping to re-establish the public into the political sphere, as the party claims the drug crisis has caused addicts to become unwary of the strife in their own community beyond the need for substances. 

Their story is one of empowering those who were once lost in the haze of addiction, battling against systemic oppression that aims to inhibit them with lack of agency. With the Nixon administration offering methadone clinics as a state-sponsored solution to the drug crisis, the movie reflects how inefficient the program was to curb the rate of addiction in the community – rather than treating one addiction, it is replaced with another. In the spirit of real progress towards battling the crisis, Dr. Mutulu Shakur and his associates from the Lincoln Detox Centre helped to establish an acupuncture school in Harlem, to educate the community about their teachings from Chinese medical practitioners. 

This film is imbued with the spirit of the people that have helped to mitigate an enormous problem in their community, and by consequence, the rest of the world. It is an artistically striking story that dives into the deepest recesses of activism history, and the underground that sought to work for the public against the odds set against them by the government. 

This film is available for virtual viewings from January 22-29 on the ReFrame Film Festival website

Arthur News School of Fish
Arthur News School of Fish

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