When I first encountered A Day in the Death of Donny B. (1969), it seemed like the perfect counterpoint to the hilarious and beautiful Curious Alice (1971). Unlike Curious Alice, which misfires so completely that it makes drugs look like they might be fun, Donny B. is a scary documentary-style portrait of a heroin addict literally stumbling through his day as he begs, borrows, and steals his way to his next fix. The images are haunting and the accompanying ballad is poignant. Donny B. is hands-down the more effective film.
Yet it’s not totally fair to compare them, really—while both were made by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), Curious Alice was intended for elementary school-aged children and Donny B. was obviously made for an older audience. But if the goal was to keep kids off drugs, at least Donny B. is unambiguous in its message: drugs aren’t fun. They’ll kill you and it’ll be a miserable ride on the downward spiral to wretchedness.
How Donny B. fits into the broader story of government-sponsored drug abuse education became clearer after discovering the 1971 NIMH publication “A Guide to Drug Abuse Education and Information Materials” (available in full-text PDF via the Educational Resources Information Center). According to the NIMH guide, A Day in the Death of Donny B. was part of a multi-pronged, nationwide media campaign that began in early 1969. The guide offers information and suggestions for the use of a collection of radio and television public service ads (including an LSD PSA starring Rod Serling that I sadly cannot find in the National Archives’ holdings), print media and publications, and finally, a number of films produced by NIMH for use in schools and by community groups. Donny B. is among those films, and is touted as “a thought-provoking film” that “confronts the viewer with an unflinching look at the eroded life of a young drug addict as he roams the streets of an urban ghetto.”
The stated goal of the media campaign was to raise awareness and understanding of drug abuse by using a “factual approach”. “Phase 1” defined the target audience as adults, parents, teen-agers, and urban youth and minorities. “Phase 2,” which kicked off in fall of 1970, expanded the intended reach to include pre-teens and the military. Along with educational materials about recreational drugs (sample tagline: “It isn’t very smart getting strung out on drugs, but then why do you think they call it dope?”), the public service announcements also show an emphasis on educating the public about the “neighborhood junkie” (also referred to as the “unaware adult”) who abuses prescription amphetamines and barbiturates. Ultimately, NIMH hoped to provide information that would stimulate further discussion and action within communities.
A 1971 teacher’s guide produced by NIMH makes it clear that the intention of the campaign was not necessarily to provide a comprehensive anti-drug education. According to the booklet, the purpose of Donny B. is to “deal with young people’s attitudes concerning the abuse of narcotic drugs, and only incidentally to provide information.” The onus is thus placed squarely on the teachers to “possess accurate information in case the film stimulates factual questions about drug use or uncovers areas in which the young people have misinformation.”
Reading this, it becomes more obvious why Curious Alice was such a misfire. NIMH was attempting to blast disconnected chunks of information at the public and rely on untrained educators to be able to mold the message and fill in the gaps. In theory, the concept of community customization isn’t a bad one; a message is exponentially more effective if it is relatable to the group receiving it. To see how that works out in practice, though, just have another look at Curious Alice.
It’s hard to say just how effective A Day in the Death of Donny B. was at keeping kids from using heroin, but the teacher’s guide claims that the film was “well-received by urban schools and inner-city youth groups.” The last page of the booklet also proudly displays plaques won at the American Film Festival in New York and the Atlanta International Film Festival, so it is safe to say that the film was recognized for its artistic merit.
For a contemporary analysis of Donny B. in the context of other drug abuse films, we can look at the 1972 report from the National Coordinating Council on Drug Education (the NCCDE is the independent organization that called Curious Alice “confusing” and “contradictory”). The NCCDE reviewers seemed to have a generally positive view of A Day in the Death of Donny B., but they also expressed some major concerns.
The first problem with Donny B. is the inclusion of inaccurate information. The reviewers note that Donny stumbles like someone who has been drinking alcohol and not like a person who is high on heroin (having never compared different styles of chemically-induced stumbling, I have no idea if this is a valid criticism). In addition, the reviewers felt that the film failed to include the societal causes for drug abuse, and instead zeroed in on the drug use itself as the problem, rather than as the sad result of a host of factors. Focusing only on Donny’s efforts to get high also means that the Donny B. shows drug abuse as a death sentence rather than offering any hope that addicts could find help. Finally, the reviewers felt that the film reinforced stereotypes of the ghetto that could negatively impact both black and white audiences that might see the film. Ultimately, they did not recommend the film for use by educators.
With all that said, I still think that, like Curious Alice, A Day in the Death of Donny B. is a great example of artistic achievement in government filmmaking. I enjoy it every time I see it, even if it’s only for the cinema-verité style and the stripped-down ballad that runs through the film. The films are vastly different, but both were created to address the same problem and originated in a nascent government anti-drug program. Knowing how they fit into that moment in history also adds to our understanding of why these two films appear to fail or succeed by today’s standards.
Many thanks go to our former intern and student employee Jeff Eastman, who found the Donny B. teacher’s guide in non-record material the Nixon Library was deaccessioning and recognized it as something we might want for the Motion Picture Branch’s Donny B. file (a copy may also be held in the National Archives’ textual records). You can view and download a PDF of the booklet here. Be sure to have a look at the Suggested Assignments for Students if you want to know more about how the film might have been used in classrooms.