IN CONVERSATION WITH MIA DONOVAN: DIRECTOR OF DOPE IS DEATH – THE STORY OF MUTULU SHAKUR * 2020 PATTA X IDFA*

This year, during Amsterdam’s biggest documentary film festival, PATTA teamed up with IDFA to showcase ‘Dope is Death’, the story of Mutulu Shakur. Dope is Death portrays the struggles and prosperities of the Lincoln Detox Center in The Bronx, a grassroots acupuncture clinic that cared for those neglected by a prejudicial healthcare system. Founded by the great Mutulu Shakur, the clinic sought to build the bridges burnt by big pharma companies between western society and eastern traditional medicines.

The center quickly became much more than a medical facility, taking on a secondary role as a education and community center for free thinking and political activism. Tupac Shakur, among many others, learnt a great deal from his time at the Lincoln Detox Center, that was until it was deemed as a terrorist organisation by a government poised to begin the ‘War on Drugs’, sending its members into hiding. Now from behind a sheet of prison glass, Mutulu speaks to Dope is Death Director Mia Donovan about the centers legacy.

In convocation with:

Mia Donovan, Director of Dope Is Death.

What did it mean have PATTA pick Dope is Death’as their “PATTA Meets” for this years IDFA? And how has it been to see the international praise for your doc? 

I was honoured that Dope Is Dath was selected for their ‘PATTA Meets’ initiative.  The fact that Dope is Death stood out speaks to the universality of the themes of community healing and self-determination.  I learned so much from each person I interviewed for this documentary and I am so happy that their work inspires young people in Europe as well as in America. 

One of the big takeaways from the film for me was the connection between acupuncture as a solution to the lack of affordable healthcare in minority communities. Do you think the cultural cohesion showed between those that adopted acupuncture at clinic. Is this cultural cohesion is part of the reason why the US government talked about Mutulus work in such a xenophobic and derogatory way? 

When I first learned about this story I was struck by the fact that the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords were the first in the USA to use acupuncture to treat heroin withdrawal symptoms and that they viewed drugs as part of a chemical warfare to pacify black and brown resistance – so the combination of the acupuncture and the political education was so progressive and is still progressive today, 50 years later. They introduced acupuncture, a non-chemical treatment for heroin dependency, at a time when methadone maintenance was just becoming the standard treatment for heroin dependency.

Of course, methadone is still being made by pharmaceutical companies who make a lot of money from this drug and so acupuncture is a threat to Big Pharma. And back then, in 1970, a year before President Richard Nixon launched the ‘war on drugs’, drug use was still viewed in the realm of public health. Of course, the ‘war on drugs’ would transform drugs in society into primarily a criminal issue until recently.

So for the black and Puerto Rican communities of the South Bronx the lack of drug treatment programs was part of a larger problem of insufficient healthcare. Black and poor communities have been historically denied healthcare and have been victimized by the American public healthcare system and this is well documented.

One example of racist medical abuse is the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment where black men were denied healthcare so the white doctors could study the long term effects of syphilis on the body. In the South Bronx, the Lincoln Hospital was the only hospital available for hundreds of thousands of residents and the building itself had been condemned in the 1950s but was still being used in the 1970s.

The local residents called the Lincoln Hospital ‘the butcher shop’ because of its horrid reputation for medical misconduct. So, yeah, acupuncture was a tool toward the self-determination of black and brown people and the government saw this as a threat. If you can control the healthcare you can control the people, so in this context acupuncture as an alternative to Western medicine and its systemic racism is a tool towards the self-determination of oppressed people. And of course that was seen as a threat to the dominant culture and the government.

How was it handling the gravity attached to the Shakur name from a filmmaking standpoint? In some ways was this irrelevant to the story that you wanted to tell?

In terms of the Shakur name, obviously it was a point of initial interest but it remained besides the point while shooting the documentary since the focus was on the acupuncture that Mutulu helped to develop.

The legacy of the Shakur name needs to be a documentary on its own and a book. The Shakur name carries so much important history and weight. Mutulu took on the name from his adopted father Saladin Shakur who was the father of Black Panther Party members Lumumba Shakur and Zayd Shakur.

It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t go deeper into the backstory of the Lincoln Detox in the documentary because both Lumumba and Zayd were instrumental in the history of combatting chemical warfare in the form of heroin and methadone in the community and Mutulu picked up from what he learned from them.

They were all involved in fighting drugs in the black community, we see Lumumba Shakur in the documentary talking about how they had to pour confiscated heroin into the sewers rather than turn it over to the police because the police would just put it back into the community. And Zayd Shakur was directly involved in the hospital takeover that led to the Lincoln Detox program. This is not even to mention Assata Shakur or Tupac Shakur.

And, yes, believe I would have still made the same film if Dr. Shakur had a different name. For me it was the connection between radical politics and community healing and how the this was eventually perceived as a threat to the system.

Mutulu’s wrongful incarceration is made even more unjust by the recent news that he has late stage bone cancer. Was there ever a hope that making this film could result in a discharge for mutulu? or was the objective always just to capture the story of his clinic and the demonisation of acupuncture as a form of racial oppression.

My intention was always to focus on the counter-narrative of who Dr. Mutulu Shakur really is. Unfortunately, the crimes of which Mutulu has been convicted have overshadowed the real work he has achieved for his community.

Until recently, if you googled Mutulu Shakur’s name you mostly only got information related to his conviction. There was very little documentation on his pioneering acupuncture work when I began this project about 7 or 8 years ago. However, that began to change over the last 4 or 5 years since many scholars and acupuncturists and myself have started to really work on bringing this history to the forefront.

Of course, I hope that this documentary will help to set the record straight in terms of who Dr. Mutulu Shakur really is.  And so far this documentary and a lot of the recent articles that have come out over that last few years have been clarifying the narrative and cementing Mutulu’s name as an acupuncture pioneer.

Was it a purposeful decision to keep Tupac out of the documentary until a brief mention in the last act?

Tupac Shakur was born in 1971 so he was just a small child when Dr. Mutulu Shakur was working at the Lincoln Detox. Tupac spent a lot of time running around the Lincoln Detox with his older brother Mopreme Shakur when they were visiting with their father but they were too young to be actively involved back then.  Although Mutulu was a huge influence on Tupac and Mopreme I really wanted to keep the POV of the documentary to first person perspectives of those involved in the program. 

It features a shocking piece of archival footage that showed Reagan bickering in a Trump like fashion with local residence of the detox center. In the video he shouts, “ I can’t help you at all unless you vote for me”.  How did you manage to keep  an objective point of view and not let any personal beliefs or political opinions get in the way of you telling the story?

Well, I think by including that particular piece of archive was to demonstrate the forces of systemic oppression.  Reagan and his ignorance and, like you said ‘Trumpian fashion’, was what these activists were resisting, they were resisting this very conservative wave of oppression that was actively trying to sweep away all the idealism and community centred work that came out of the late-1960s and 1970s.

I’m curious, did you yourself try acupuncture while making the film? Or have you had enough acupuncture talk for one lifetime?

Dope Is Death — Guelph Film Festival

I started getting acupuncture regularly with Dr. Mario Wexu about six years ago and I am actually getting acupuncture later this afternoon. Acupuncture has completely changed my life. I am so thankful that I have access to it.

How do you feel the lesson of the “we just did it” approach to activism that Mutulu had can best serve us today? Was this raw expression of activism part of the main reason why you wanted to capture this story? 

I love the DIY element of this story and I think it’s inspiring to learn that these young people just went forward and took direct action to better serve the community. I think we can all learn from this. To build a better serving society we need community action. There was a selflessness to their political ideology that we need today more than ever.


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