Inspiring People

Documentary Film Maker, Crystal Emery

Crystal Emery

Crystal Renée Emery has more than 30 years professional experience in the entertainment industry, having produced, written, directed and worked on productions throughout the United States and Europe. She polished her craft under the tutelage of industry giant Bill Duke ("A Rage in Harlem") and is one of a select group of young directors to work extensively with directing icon Lloyd Richards ("Piano Lesson"). She has worked in major regional theaters such as Chicago's Goodman Theatre, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, Los Angeles's Dolittle Theatre and New Haven's (Connecticut) Long Wharf Theatre. She holds a BFA from the University of Connecticut, attended NYU film school and completed intensive cinematography classes with Brianne Murphy at UCLA.

As executive director of Upper Room Unlimited, Inc. ("URU"), Crystal helmed a thriving non-profit organization that utilized the arts to foster communication and understanding among diverse racial, social and economic groups about issues that affect urban communities. URU's focus included race relations, HIV, breast cancer education, disability rights and world ecology. In 1999, she developed an URU program series entitled "This Is Where I Live, Don't Dump On Me," designed to inspire environmental responsibility and cultivate problem-solving skills among inner city children; throughout it's implementation the series reached more than 5,000 children in 28 urban schools and community centers throughout Connecticut.

Through URU Crystal produced the "Sankofa Cultural Art Festival-2000," which brought together nationally renowned Native American, Latino and African-American artists from across the U.S. to celebrate "The Right To Be." In 2001 Crystal and URU launched "Woman to Woman: Helping Ourselves," an innovative and highly successful nationwide series of conferences focused on breast health education, outreach and mammography screening that targeted under-served women in urban communities. Woman to Woman developed unique partnerships among health institutions, medical professionals, municipal and state governments, and community and civic organizations to reach unprecedented numbers of women within population groups that the medical profession recognizes are difficult to involve in preventive health maintenance.

Most recently, Crystal developed and implemented intensive writing workshops for elementary students entitled "The Writer's Lunch." Her ongoing "Little Man" Literacy Series is aimed at urban elementary students with the idea that all children can benefit from reading about the urban experiences of her characters. Her first children's book, "Little Man's Fourth Grade Journey" is currently part of the curriculum in several school districts. Her latest published work (August 2006), "Little Man Loses His Tooth", has been well received in educational districts spanning the United States.

Crystal just completed the independent documentary The Deadliest Disease in America a poignant look at racism in healthcare. She is currently shooting Jibarro, My Country My Home, a look at Puerto Rican hill music and the resurgence of it in America.

Crystal remains undaunted by the many challenges of living with muscular dystrophy, continuing to shape a successful personal and professional life. She is a student at The New School of Learning, a division of the S.E.L.F. - Help Foundation, Inc. in New Rochelle, New York and attributes her breakthrough as a writer to her participation in the classes taught by Madeleine Peters.

If by “being extraordinary” you mean being someone who is willing to make incredible contribution in the face of impossible challenges when it would be justifiable to just merely survive, if by “courageous” you mean pushing through pain and difficulty and disappointment and fear, and if by “rare” you mean something as uncommon as it is precious, than Crystal Emery is an extraordinary, courageous and rare human being –

by anybody’s standard.

DR: Tell me about your life and your work.

CE: I am a lot of things -

I am a mother. I am a wife. I am an artist. I am a writer. I am a film maker. I am a fabulous cook. I am a student on a journey to know myself and to know God. Right now what I am doing is working on my film called The Deadliest Disease in America which is about racism in healthcare system.

DR: How is it that you came to make this film?

CE: I was talking to my friend Pat Baker who is the president of The Connecticut Health Foundation. We were talking about the incidences of racism in healthcare and how there is no effective way to report it. We were talking about how white doctors are in such denial that racism within the healthcare system even exists or that their own behavior is in any way racist. My friend Pat said "Why don't you do a documentary about it?" That was March 2007.

Originally it was called Disparities in American Healthcare: The Audacity to Hope. Everybody said to me that I couldn't use The Audacity to Hope because they believed that Obama was going to lose and that as a result, the title would negatively impact the movie. I think the audacity to hope is really important because - do we dare hope that we could actually change this diseased healthcare system?

I set out to write grants and I got all of my friends to donate and by the fall of 2007 I had raised $300,000 dollars and we started shooting in October that year.

I really believe in God and I believe this is a God thing.

We ended up with two hundred people for the forum after everybody kept saying that I was never going to get people to come and talk openly about racism. But we got everybody there, I did the introduction, introduced the moderators, gave them the questions and then I went into the other room to watch on the monitors. About five minutes later, nobody was talking. So I went back out and said

"Look! Are you people crazy?! Do you know how much money this is costing me?"

I said,

"All of you people here are constantly calling me up about the state of healthcare and about racism in healthcare. Here is an opportunity where we have a cross section of doctors, patients, advocates and policy makers. What is your problem?"

Then I told them,

"If you don't talk you won't eat."

DR: And why do you think it was that people weren't talking?

CE: I think that because it was being taped, people were afraid to talk openly. People are really afraid to share what they believe and what they have observed.

DR: What have they shared with you about what they are afraid of?

CE: I have had doctors, White and Black, come up to me and say that the film captures their experience but they just don't feel like they can speak openly the way things are. One doctor told me that he would risk losing referrals if he spoke up or he would be attacked by his colleagues if he told the truth.

DR: What do you think about that?

CE: I think that people died for us as Americans to be in a place of opportunity, because they had the courage to speak out.

We have to create an environment that says "Do the right thing." I think there are more people now who want to do the right thing and who want to speak out but they feel like they are all alone. Living in Connecticut I feel all alone because there are not a lot of people like me who are willing to speak what their truth is. I feel that as a spiritual person I have a moral obligation that when I see an injustice to say "This has to stop". Martin Luther King Jr. said that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

We have to do something!

I was in the hospital during the summer of 2007. I was really sick and this nurse was treating me so terribly. I was wondering if I was rude or if I had bad breath or something. What had I done to her that she would belittle me? Then I heard her outside in the Hallway:

"These Black people are just so damn demanding. She thinks I'm her servant."

My hands are paralyzed. I can't feed myself and I heard her say:

"I am not feeding her. She eats too damn slow. Get somebody else to feed her".

I realized then that her problem was that I was Black. Here I am struggling to breathe and to survive and I have to deal with her treatment of me as less than human because I am Black?

DR: Hmm…I wonder what being Black had to do with her opinion that you were demanding?

CE: I was in the middle of doing the research for the documentary and her comments just made me more determined that, when I got out of that hospital, I would put my whole heart into this project because somebody had to have the courage to say:

"This is what it looks like and it has to stop!"

DR: What have you discovered about yourself as a result of doing the film and as a result of rising above these kinds of experiences and dealing with people that are unwilling to speak out?

CE: As I grow older I am becoming less tolerant of inequity and for letting excuses pass for ignorance.

We all have choices and we make our choices everyday. I look at my disease and my situation and I could get up in the morning and think "Woe is me". My life is terrible and I could just lie in the bed. Or, I could choose to thank God for this opportunity and celebrate what is good.

I have gotten a chance to see my positive self become more active and strong.

What I have learned is that people are really afraid to just say "This has to stop." People are afraid of losing their jobs. They are afraid of negative peer backlash so they are willing to accept what they know is wrong to cover their own asses.

DR: Lately I've been thinking about how we, meaning people, do what is best for just ourselves sometimes without being willing to sacrifice our own comfort or our own immediate self interest for what would ultimately benefit others. You are someone who is willing to make a sacrifice for a greater cause. Do you think of yourself in that way?

CE: People have tried to put me into some kind of leadership role. You know what? I am passionate about making a cupcake...

DR: About what?

CE: Making a cupcake.

DR: That's what I thought you said...

CE: I come from people that take care of their community. My grandmother is a minister, her mother was a minister, my mother is a Yale Divinity School minister - I come from people who take care of their community. They try to raise their kids in a way that keeps us all connected. So, I didn't wake up one day and just feel that I wanted to go out and challenge the healthcare system. In fact, I have doctors that don't charge me and who come to my home. I have a good team of doctors that are keeping me alive. So, a lot of these experiences that I have heard from other people are not exactly the ones that I have had but it doesn't mean they don't exist. I am utilizing my talents as an artist - and I think that artists should do this - to deal with issues that effect my community.

I am not sitting around trying to be a martyr…

DR: Or a hero?

CE: I am an ordinary person who said "Enough is enough"!

DR: What do you hope that the film accomplishes?


Disparities based on difference—particularly racial and ethnic difference—have existed in the United States since its founding. Although science has made great progress in improving healthcare technologies, many of these advances have occurred via the exploitation of American minorities. This complex issue requires aggressive political and cultural action and a holistic community response to ensure proper care for all.

This documentary follows the story of four individuals, all of whom experienced racism in seeking medical care. The film also highlights five organizations throughout the country, from New England to Texas, that are making significant strides in resolving this crisis. The film utilizes two public forums as a “Greek chorus” to introduce the issues and offer solutions. Other stylistic elements include: historical accounts; first person interviews; re-enactments of disparity in practice and “The Chorus”—the arguments and grievances of forum participants (doctors, nurses, activists, policy makers and community citizens).

The grievances expressed in our forums tell the story of how racism in the medical profession consumes people of color without notice from outside the community, nor public outcry. This documentary speaks out on behalf of people who have been silenced. The documentary is a vehicle to stimulate conversations among audiences—conversations that will result in real transformations to our dysfunctional health care system. While it provides a rare glimpse of the toll that American healthcare disparities take on the families and individuals in our communities, the film also demonstrates that individuals and organizations at many levels of society will no longer wait passively for change.

The Deadliest Disease in America gives voice to many stakeholders joining a wave of activism, a movement for change, that has been sweeping across the nation with the ultimate goal of a universal health care system that serves all equally, eliminating disparate treatment based on racial and ethnic differences.

Click here to watch the trailer.

To learn more, visit

CE: The film is a tool and the real work gets done in the workshops.

What I hope to accomplish is real education about what racism within the healthcare system looks like and how it affects us.

The example of Deamonte Driver, for instance -

Here is this twelve year old kid who died of an abscessed tooth. It would only have cost a few hundred dollars to deal with his condition. Let's talk economics. It eventually cost $250,000 to eventually try to help him and he died. It could have cost a few hundred dollars and a little compassion for someone to save his life.

We are our brother's keeper.

Why should my friend Pat or the governor's kids have access to better healthcare, or get treated differently with regard to quality healthcare while my kid gets less treatment that will undermine his life expectancy? Somebody has to say "Enough is enough!"

I definitely don't feel like I am so special. I am just an ordinary person.

DR: See that's where things disconnect for me. I don't see you as ordinary. I see you as anything but ordinary. Could it be that you just don't want to accept that people do see you as extraordinary?

CE: Dana, listen:

I go to the Africans to get my hair braided. I make cornbread from scratch. I argue with my husband. I cuss out my brothers and sisters. I like to read. I am an ordinary person.

I think that we create a false perception of people that suggests because someone does a certain thing they are special and then others use that as an excuse to not do extraordinary things themselves. When I get up in the morning I am not thinking about how to be extraordinary. I am thinking about how I am going to pee.

DR: Mm...

CE: I am serious!

DR: Yeah. I get that you are serious…

CE: Listen, I am not an intellectual. I am not a politician. I am an artist. Every person has art in them. So when I say that I am an ordinary person, I mean that I really am. Obama is an ordinary person but he has vision. Regular people with values and an ability to build on that, get things done. I think that somebody who can do open heart surgery is extraordinary

I am not resisting that you think I am extraordinary, I just think that categorizing people that way allows other people to let themselves off the hook.

DR: What I think makes you extraordinary is the fact that you have the courage to get up everyday and face ridiculous challenges in just doing what so many of us don't have to think about doing, when you could so easily justify staying in bed. The fact that you show up and speak out when everyday tasks are monumental is incredible.

CE: Think about it this way -

Every Black person that was enslaved and got up everyday and went out to work in that field was an extraordinary person.

I know people that have five kids and make ten dollars an hour and yet, everyday they get up and they get those kids dressed and they go to school and they go to work and they come home and they do homework with those kids and nobody is saying to them "Hey! You are extraordinary!" The people that are extraordinary are people who are about taking care of business.

DR: What would you change about your life right now if you could change anything?

CE: I'd walk! I'd be healthy!

DR: What do you regret?

CE: I have had a crazy life. I have lived in three countries and ten states... All of that "crazy" is what has made me who I am today. If I have hurt people along the way I am so sorry. And yet, this is what life is about. It's not what happens to you, it is how you handle what happens to you.

Part of this new era we are in will include finding each other so that we can find courage with each other to go out and be who we are and speak the truth that people are so afraid to speak.

I am learning about God. I am learning about what real love is. You ask me if I have had any regrets? Dana, I have had a love affair with life. I have met people that are incredible. I am the last person who was personally trained by Lloyd Richards. I got to work with Gregory Hines and we became friends. At each level I have learned more about myself and about love. I have also learned that whatever time I have left on this earth, I want to use in a positive way.

It is really hard what I am doing and sometimes I get really mad. Let me tell you a story about this doctor:

A doctor called me up and told me that he wasn't going to come to the screening of my film and that the only reason that he came was because one of his friends was one of the hosts.

He told me that the morning after the screening while he was in the shower he was thinking about the film and that is when he realized that in his own office, in his own suburban office, he had had complaints about this one receptionist over the years. He said that it never dawned on him in all these years that all of the complaints that he received were from people of color. Prior to seeing The Deadliest Disease in America, he would have never thought that, in his office, racism was at work. After seeing the film, all of the dots connected and he realized that he had a problem that he needed to deal with.

DR: And that was because of your film…

CE: After seeing the film.

DR: So your intention is being fulfilled right before your eyes then?

CE: Yes. It is.

DR: What do you want ultimately?

CE: How much time do you have?

Girl, I want my movie produced! I want my book published!

DR: What is refreshing about you is that you are just straight about the answer to that question rather than a generic, lofty response.

CE: Yeah, and I want my husband to stop arguing with me...

DR: A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?

CE: For being someone who didn't rest until my good was better and my better was best. And for being someone who did the very best that I could do with my level of understanding of the world.

Thanks Crystal!

Donate to URU, The Right To Be

URU, The Right To Be, Inc., is a public, non-member, charitable 501(c)3 organization.

This organization exists to develop artistic projects with two purposes in mind: to uplift and encourage positive perspectives of ethnic groups, women, and persons with disabilities, and to heighten consciousness around ideas and social issues affecting the community. The functions of this organization include but are not limited to: advancing education through art-related events; hands-on training for inner city youth in the artistic and production aspects of creating and/or performing; instructing the public on subjects beneficial to the community, particularly issues concerning race relations, HIV/AIDS and world ecology.

To donate online, click here. Or mail your donation to :

URU The Right To Be Inc.
P.O. Box 26925
West Haven, CT 06516

Any questions please call Crystal Emery at 203.389.7466

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