How acupuncture reached the Black community

Photo courtesy of EyeSteelFilm |

The DOXA Documentary Film Festival offers over 40 films you can view from the comfort of your living room until June 26. One of them is Dope is Death, a story decades old yet strikingly prescient, directed by Montreal-based filmmaker Mia Donovan.

The film examines racial politics and activism in 1970s New York City through the lens of acupuncture and reveals the strong sense of community the practice held.

A winding road

The seed for this documentary was planted a decade ago, when Donovan was introduced to Montreal acupuncturist Mario Wexu. Wexu had an unlikely connection to New York activism: he had taught acupuncture to several members of the Black Panthers and Young Lords, including the very active Mutulu Shakur, back in the 1970s. Donovan was immediately interested by what she heard.

“I didn’t really know anything about this,” says Donovan, “I didn’t even know who the Young Lords were. I had never heard about acupuncture, or its connection to the Black Panthers…it was all very new to me.”

Dope is Death examines why and how acupuncture was put in place in the community-run Lincoln Detox, a clinic run out of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. Lincoln Detox focused on drug rehabilitation, specifically for heroin, which was ravaging the area’s Black community. Rather than using other drugs like methadone to curtail heroin use, the clinic’s goal was to use more holistic, non-chemical methods, like acupuncture.

“I was attracted to this story in the beginning because I have a stepbrother who has addiction issues,” says Donovan. “He has been in and out of rehab centers since he was 11, and so I’ve always been interested in drug treatments and how they work.”

It was difficult for Donovan to learn about Lincoln Detox initially because there was little information on it online. So the development of the film was a slow journey which included correspondence and multiple visits with Shakur, who had been in prison since the late 80s. Rather than a more broad overview, Donovan focused her research on the specific area around the clinic to build a detailed profile of that neighborhood.

“I always try to document first-person perspectives,” she says. “When I meet someone, they tell me about a certain perspective of the history, and they lead me to another person, and so on. I try to really build up the atmosphere, the ideological landscape that the story was built upon.”

The struggle continues

Mia Donovan, filmmaker. | Photo courtesy of EyeSteelFilm

A lot of the film is made up of archival footage, but there are many moments that resonate with the current Black Lives Matter movement sweeping across North America. That is not something Donovan set out to do, but when she spoke with those involved with the Lincoln Detox, she realized that their struggles against racism and authorities like the police were the same as the struggles that exist today.

“The history has always been there,” she says. “When I started doing the documentary and interviewing people, I think I had some naivety, asking how things had changed for the people involved. They told me for the most part, these issues have not improved.”

While that was a truly sobering realization, Donovan has taken heart in seeing the positive impact acupuncture has made in New York, continuing the legacy of those who fought for an individual-first, more compassionate way of treatment. Filming at a small drop-in clinic in present-day Harlem, Donovan was impressed by the effect the practice had.

“When I first started visiting the acupuncture clinic I was skeptical of it, but I would watch people come in super restless, and within a few minutes of receiving acupuncture they were so relaxed in almost a full transformation. It was beautiful seeing the community healing each other in this safe space…it brings people together, it relieves anxiety, there is something really great about it.”

To watch the film, go to www.doxafestival.ca. There will also be a four-part podcast series to accompany the film released at the end of the month, also entitled Dope is Death.

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