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Hot Docs 2020: “Dope is Death” ★★★★


There should be someone who stands for the poor and vulnerable at all times. Not because that individual has nothing else to do with his/her life but because it is the greatest cause no one is willing to make a sacrifice for. In case it does seem like happening, there will always be forces in place to shut the effort down. Why? Because greed that’s fuelled by a lack of empathy, envy, and desire for power trumps benevolence in the contemporary world. And even where the strong are capable of doing good, they somehow choose to side with the bad.

From director Mia Donovan, “Dope is Death” invites its viewers to follow Dr. Mutulu Shakur, stepfather of Tupac Shakur and a member of Black Panthers who, collaborating with the Young Lords, creates the first acupuncture. Raised by a blind mother, the man at a young age began adopting the necessary skills and crucial life experience that led his life towards something incredible. By providing his Acupuncture service he helped many people cope with drug addiction and even successfully managed to even get rid of it in some cases. However, this film does not offer only the bright side of the story but also concentrates on its dark side as well, the part where the creator of a groundbreaking treatment had to spend life in prison.

“Dope is Death” explores the most important part of American history that’s fueled by racism and offers an insight into the government’s possible attempt to keep drug addiction alive as the only way to keep people’s minds occupied. Via the impressive list of interviewees including Maliki Shakur, Sekou Odinga, Susan Rosenberg, Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin and many more, Mia Donovan cleverly paints a picture of America in the 70s, the history of acupuncture, never-ending racism, heroin epidemic, and when a group of political radicals takes control over New York’s Lincoln Hospital. Led by Dr. Shakur, the Lincoln Hospital turned into the first and only politically run drug treatment program funded by the US government.

As someone who’s getting to know about all of this in the 21st century, Donovan’s documentary can easily qualify as a historical one that will equally scare and amaze you at the same time. On the one hand it’s remarkable to learn that acupuncture was being used to treat the drug addiction and the variety of disorders in people, it mainly focuses on the poorest population and giving them what the healthcare system would deny. The film not only provides food for thought but also reminds us that we have not advanced much from where we were besides technology that is well ahead of us. The system continues to mistreat, encourage violence though certain political figures, and increase the number of people that suffer from severe drug addiction.

That said, “Dope is Death” is perhaps the most important documentary to see at the Hot Docs. The excellent structure, archival footage on display, and in-depth interviews help us better understand the working of BAAANA (Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America) and its way of fighting heroin addiction. It has not only helped cure heroin addicts but also actively shines the light on an already dark life of those individuals and gives them purpose which they would not seek otherwise. And if that’s not what we all must look forward to seeing, people happier and fulfilled, then what should we?

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