Exclusive Interview with the talented American documentarist Crystal Emery PDF Print E-mail
Written by Patricia Turnier   
Monday, 10 October 2016 18:29



Crystal Renée Emery grew up in the Brookside Housing Projects in New Haven, Connecticut. Philanthropy is part of Ms. Emery’s family tradition. Thus, her grandmother is a minister, likewise for her mother who is a Yale Divinity School minister. Her family members take care of their community.

During her childhood, Ms. Emery enjoyed directing her brothers and sisters in plays and imaginery television shows. She is an artist, authoress, documentarist, activist and playwright among other things. The lady is known for creating socially-conscious works and stories that highlight the triumph of the human spirit. Emery is also the CEO & founder of her nonprofit organization URU, The Right to Be, Inc., a content production company that tackles social issues via film, theatre, publishing, and other arts-based initiatives.

At ten, Emery began having the early-onset symptoms of Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a neuromuscular pathology that was not properly diagnosed until the age of 19. Her health problems did not become a deterrent to the pursuit of her passions. Thus, at 16, she met the well-known playwright Ntozake Shange at the Black Theater Group at Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center. The authoress gave Emery permission to produce a performance of her successful play (For Colored Girls…) at a festival for high school students. Emery’s production obtained several state and regional awards, giving her a reputation as a respected young actress and directress. Over more than three decades, she produced 20-plus plays and two documentaries. Her work was presented across America and Europe.

Ms. Emery was mentored by the highly talented Gregory Hines and Lloyd Richards. The latter is an award-winning director and Yale School of Drama professor. Crystal Emery worked with Mr. Richards for the production of Fences and The Piano Lesson (a play written by August Wilson who received a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1990). He also produced Fences ). She toured for six years with these theatre pieces across the country. Through Mr. Richards she met the celebrated filmmaker Bill Duke who gave her first job as a production assistant for the 1991 film A Rage in Harlem (an adaptation of the eponymous novel from Chester Himes) starring Robin Givens, Forrest Whitaker, Gregory Hines and Danny Glover. Notably, Bill Duke directed The Cemetery Club in 1993 and this made him historically the first African-American who was fully responsible for an entirely White cast of actors.

All these experiences and acquaintances propelled Ms. Emery to create her first screenplay in 1992 named Sweet Nez which was auctioned by the renowned film producer Suzanne de Passe. Later, Ms. Emery created as mentioned her non-profit organization URU, The Right to Be, Inc. that promotes cultural competency and collaboration among diverse racial, social and economic groups. In 1979, Emery began her studies at the University of Connecticut as a theater major.

Throughout the years, the symptoms of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease aggravated. In 1971, she started to fall for no reason. At the end of high school, it began to be more difficult for Ms. Emery to walk. By 1981, she had received the diagnosis of Charcot-Marie-Tooth. The disease also affects her respiratory system. She uses a wheelchair and sometimes a BIPAP. She often has fever and respiratory illnesses. It happens that she has to use a breathing machine. In 2002, Ms. Emery became quadriplegic, a term that makes her uncomfortable because it can be perceived as limitative and she dislikes labels. Her new condition made her more resilient and she has continued to pursue her endeavors. Emery penned and produced a play called In the Upper Room which was has been performed off-Broadway over the last 16 years. She created and coordinated a cultural festival, wrote two children’s books including biographical photo-essays. She led education events, conducted health literacy programs, produced two documentaries, managed an educational campaign and in 2013 she received her Master’s Degree in Public Engagement/Media Studies from The New School for Public Engagement in NY. Before, she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Connecticut.

Ms.  Emery with Dr. Joycelyn Elders, M.D the first African American woman who occupied the role of the United States Surgeon General.  
One of her powerful quote regarding aspiration is: "You can’t be what you can’t see!"

Regarding more specifically her latest documentary Black Women in Medicine, it was challenging for Ms. Emery to work on her film but she succeeded thanks to her courage and determination. It took her five years from beginning to end to write the script of her documentary. She started in 2011. She dictated her ideas to a typist. Technology helped her also. About seven cities were involved for the shooting. The initiative Changing the Face of Medicine has been embraced and defined by filmmaker Bill Duke as an “educational and artistic tour de force.” The documentary Black Women in Medicine will air on 279 American Public Television (APT) stations in fall 2016. It is important to note that APT is known as the biggest syndicator of programming. The documentary should also be broadcasted on TV One, BET, Bounce TV, Liftetime, OWN including other American channels and elsewhere in the world in other languages. This great documentary deserves a NAACP, an Essence Award and so on. Marlee Matlin who is Jewish became the first and only deaf actress to receive an Oscar as best actress. In addition, Kathryn Bigelow is the only directress in the 88 years of the Academy Awards who won an Oscar. Hence, solely four female filmmakers have been nominated for their directorial achievements: Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties), Jane Campion (The Piano), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). The movie of Bigelow was about war. In 2007, the directress Deepa Mehta (an Indo-Canadian) was nominated in the best foreign film category (for Water) but did not win. This movie was about female issues likewise for Yentl (The Jewish actress Barbra Streisand did not earn an Oscar as the best directress in 1984). Does a feature film or a documentary on female issues have its place at the Oscars ? We will see if next year there will be more diversity among the winners. It would definitely make the Academy more inclusive. Mrs. Emery aims to collect at least an Oscar nomination for her documentary. This would be groundbreaking especially when we live in a world where more than 62 million females do not have access to education.

The film has the power to move people to tears. It is touching to see the emotions of Black women in the documentary when they receive their acceptance letter regarding their residency training. Viewers learn what motivated them since their childhood for some to become physicians. The informative and compelling documentary also covers the history of Black women who were the primary caregivers since they arrived in America centuries ago. Viewers learn for example about the first African-American physician Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler in the nineteenth century. She graduated from medical school in 1864 in New England.

In the film, it is mentioned that in 1969, 2% of all doctors were African-Americans, and in 2008, this figure had risen to only 3%. Changes are extremely slow: a 1% of increase in 40 years. The documentary is educational. For example, we learn in it that Black women die at a greater rate of preventable diseases as of middle-age. Viewers also discover in the film that some physicians overcame incredible odds such as falling pregnant during their teenage years and managed to be a doctor with a specialty. In fact, many females in the documentary are specialists who found a way to break amazing glass ceilings. These women are courageous to speak up and tell the world about their journey including their struggles.

The groundbreaking documentary Black Women in Medicine is a celebration of African American female doctors. So far, the film was shown in 15 American cities. It went to different cities across the U.S., including Chicago, St. Louis, Raleigh, North Carolina, Cleveland, Ohio and others.

Prominent health care specialists like Dr. Thomas (who was the first Black female orthopedist in the U.S. and it is important to note that this specialty is among the most lucrative in the medical field), Dr. Barbara Ross Lee (the sister of Diana Ross who became the first African American dean of an American Medical School), Dr. Benjamin, a former surgeon general of the U.S., Dr. Sharon Malone, an obstetrician and gynecologist, the wife of the former Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African-American to occupy this position and Dr. Elders, the first African-American surgeon general in America are being featured in the documentary. We hear powerful testimonies from them. For instance, Dr. Elders said she never saw growing up a physician and in these circumstances it is difficult to become what you cannot see. Other prominent doctors are there also such as Dr. Velma Scantlebury who became the first Black woman transplant surgeon in America. More than 20 doctors were interviewed for the documentary.

Notably, in 2014, Black women represented 2% of all American physicians. Unfortunately, there is a similar low percentage in other liberal professions in North America and in other Western countries. Let’s hope in the future, there will be more real diversity in lucrative professions where we would see additional Blacks, Natives, women and so on. Can the diversity we see in shows such Grey’s Anatomy become a reality? We are looking forward to this.

Ms. Emery created plenty of initiatives and documentary film programs with social impact as the emphasis. The miniseries This Is Where I Live, Don’t Dump On Me, aimed to cultivate environmental responsibility and problem-solving strategies among inner city kids. Sankofa Cultural Art Festival in 2000 brought together nationally renowned Native American, Latino and African-American artists from America. Woman to Woman: Helping Ourselves, was a nationwide series of conferences focused on breast health education targeting for under-served females in urban communities.

Ms. Emery also works as a Public Engagement and Media Specialist, offering strategic planning to diverse institutions and community organizations. She won the Congressional Black Caucus Health Brain Trust Award in Journalism for her first feature length documentary, The Deadliest Disease in America. The film concerns racism in healthcare practices (including how patients “of color” can be treated differently) and earned her the Congressional Black Caucus Health Brain Trust Award in Journalism .

Ms. Emery was featured in Essence in June 2016 and in Time magazine on July 20, 2016. As mentioned, she possesses over 30 years of experience in the entertainment industry on stage, screen, etc. as a producer, writer, director and so on in America and Europe. This quote of hers summarizes her mindset: “I refuse to be defined by the body I inhabit; as a deeply passionate and creative individual, I am so much more than a Black woman living with a life-altering physical disability. I am energy in motion and spirit first”.

Emery’s companion book of the documentary entitled Against all Odds begins with these powerful words: “I thank God, The Holy Order of Yodh, and Master Teacher, Guru Madeleine. Her teachings have taught me that I am a writer and to never allow my body to define what I am capable of. I was given the vision for this work and, through God’s grace, the courage to make it happen. What are the odds that someone considered a quadriplegic, with paralyzed hands and legs, could produce the first book of biographical photo-essays dedicated to the extraordinary efforts of Black women doctors?” The foreword of the book was written by the legendary historian Dr. Darlene Clark Hine who received three years ago the National Humanities Medal by Mr. President Barack Obama, for her work on raising awareness about the African-American experience.

A popular quote says we can judge a book by its cover. It is definitely the case with Ms. Emery’s publication which should be a NY Times best seller. The content is excellent and the book is very informative. It gives an overview of what was done in the past and what is happening in the present in the medical field regarding the important contribution of African-American female doctors. Her book contains powerful images such as Black girls dressed as surgeons. Thus, future readers will find a powerful quote in the book of Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the former U.S. Surgeon General: "You can't be what you can't see." To break the glass ceiling, the women portrayed in the documentary and the book had to overcome three types of discriminatory triple threats: racism, classism and sexism. Another interesting aspect in the film and the book is we discover female physicians with more than one specialty.

The national initiative created by Ms. Emery aims to increase the number of Black physicians in America from four percent in 2016 to seven percent by 2030. Now, 4.5% of all physicians in the United States are African-Americans and 2% of all doctors are Black women which is not representative at all of the population as a whole given that African-Americans are circa 14% of the overall population of the country. The lack of diversity can impact the health of the nation. Hence, Changing the Face of Medicine is a groundbreaking multimedia documentary project and educational initiative that honors the history, status and future of women of color in medicine. The film is also about giving hope to African-American children by reminding them they can become physicians during their adulthood. As mentioned, future readers will see in the book inspiring pictures of Black children dressed as doctors.

Black Women in Medicine had its world premiere in New York City on August 26th at Cinema Village in New York and its Los Angeles premiere on September 2nd at Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills. Emery chose to launch her documentary at these venues because they are both Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) qualifying cinemas. Ms. Emery wants her film to meet the eligibility criteria for an Academy Award nomination.

If there is a second edition of the companion book, it would be interesting if it included more female Black physicians in mental health such as psychiatrists or geriatricians. In addition, it would be interesting to include more African American women in the most lucrative fields of medicine such as radiology and plastic surgery.

Here are some interesting excerpts from the book: “In 1950 only 133 of US medical graduates were Black, or 2.4 percent of all graduates; most were men trained at the historically Black medical schools of Meharry and Howard”. ”In the past half-century the percentage of practicing Black physicians increased from 2 percent to an estimated 5 percent of all physicians in 2015”. “In 1989, for the first time, the number of Black women surpassed enrollment of Black men. Today two out of three Black graduates of US medical schools are women.”

Overall, Ms. Emery wears many hats: she is an authoress, playwright, documentarist and columnist. She published two children’s books: Little Man’s Fourth Grade Journey and Little Man Loses His Tooth. Furthermore, she pens regularly for her column, “Crystal Clear”, published by the New Haven Independent. She also participated as a Public Engagement and Media Specialist, providing strategic planning to various institutions and community organizations. Ms. Emery likes cooking, spending time with her family and engaging with young people in significant conversation about the triumph of the human spirit. She does not let the challenges of living with muscular dystrophy beat her or define her and she continues to reach new goals which inspire people.

Women’s issues are highly important to Ms. Emery. In this regard, last spring she participated in a panel to close out Women’s History Month as the spokesperson for the School of Media Studies at the New School. Her latest documentary Black Women in Medicine was showcased at this event. Thus, in March 2016, The Changing The Face of Medicine National Education Tour began. It is an interdisciplinary event series showcasing guest speakers, book signings, interactive workshops and an advance screening of Black Women in Medicine. Another documentary Mrs. Emery produced was Experiments on people of Color. She also made the film entitled Open Season, an analytical exploration of recent race-based murders of Black men. Crystal Emery currently lives in New Haven, CT with her husband Michael and brother Sean.

Crystal Emery has no anger nor bitterness. Her strong faith is an inspiration for all of us. She is a very resilient and inspiring woman. She does not consider herself as a victim and hates labels because they are limitative. Her disease is a comma for her, not a period that will stop her from reaching her goals. She does not let anyone define her. She always has been like that since her formative years. One of the quotes that applies the most to Crystal Emery is from Oprah: “You define your own life. Don’t let other people write your script”.

In spite of her health issues, Ms. Crystal Emery has not lost her sense of humor. Where some would have sunk into defeatism, Emery regardless of her muscular dystrophy has chosen to fight and make her voice heard through her movies. She always rises while keeping her faith and does not surrender.

America is widely known for its possibility to achieve dreams. I believe this is the beauty of the country. No matter who you are and where you came from, it can be in the cards to make it big. Ms. Emery definitely exemplifies this and our webmag is proud to present this talented filmmaker. Here she talks about her latest projects and her experiences in filmmaking. The interview was conducted last summer .

P.T. Why was it important for you to focus on Black women in medicine for your latest projects and as a whole how would you assess your experience in health care? In addition, are your documentary and book the first ones of its kind in your country regarding African-American physicians?

C.E. The book Against all odds and the film Black Women in Medicine are the first of their kind. There are nothing like these in the world that capture the history, the current state of affairs and projects about how the future can look like for Black females. The book is a biographical photo essay of 106 African-American women doctors. Previously, I did not make an analytical choice to produce a film and write a book on Black women in medicine. This is not how it came about. I believe it came organically in my spirit. I interviewed two women from Yale medical school and I was so amazed by their stories. I realized that somebody should narrate their experiences because of its inspirations. I made the film first and realized that a book would relate thoroughly the tales of these remarkable females. In addition, photographers were with us when we did the shooting in different cities in the country. When I looked at the pictures, I thought they were so astonishing. So, I decided that a table book was required. We started the documentary in 2011 and I worked on the volume since 2014.

P.T. So, you didn’t plan from the start to write a book about African American physicians.

C.E. No, the universe can have a way of planning things for you. I met these wonderful women and my heart felt the right thing to do was to tell their stories.  I have had a positive experience overall with healthcare. Nine wonderful doctors are taking care of me. Only one was African-American and merely two are females. My physicians are extraordinary. They come to my home and do whatever is necessary to keep me healthy as much as possible. My personal experience with healthcare has nothing to do with my work.

P.T. I heard on YouTube that you said sometimes your medical practitioners do not even charge you. This is amazing!

C.E. It is true they don’t. My cardiologist for instance, knew at some point that I was not working and my insurance could not be used. It did not stop him to continue to treat me as his patient.

P.T. Your documentary was produced in the memory of Dr. Muriel Petioni. Can you talk about her and share with us what she meant to you?

C.E. [Silence] Dr. Muriel Petioni 1914 – 2011 was born in Trinidad and Tobago before moving with her family to Harlem, New York, where her father set up a private practice after becoming a doctor at the age of 40. Dr. Petioni was a physician since 1937 and she worked in the same office as her father. She served the Harlem community for over forty years. In 1974, she cofounded (among other initiatives) the Susan Smith McKinney Steward Medical Society for Women, a professional association for African-American doctors. In addition, she provided support to the Mentoring in Medicine program. She became also a president of the Society of Black Women Physicians.

I met Dr. Petioni maybe half way through the project. At the time, she was circa 97. Dr. Petioni is called the Godmother of Harlem. She practiced there for over 60 years. This lady had more energy than everybody I ever met. She took care of people such as Charles Rangle’s mother at the Harlem Hospital in the geriatric department. An apartment complex built in Harlem, NY was named after Dr. Petioni. It is called the Dr. Muriel Petioni Plaza. The building contains 65 units which are affordable accommodations for seniors. So, she meant a lot to me and to New Yorkers. This physician never allowed excuses to enter her world. She was the only woman in her class at Howard Medical School where she graduated. Every day, she managed to have positive thoughts to reflect on. Even when the cancer had spread and became metastatic, she was more concerned about what I was doing for my health. She was a loving and giving person. She lived what she spoke. This is so rare. She had integrity. She loved the fact that she could call me late at night at 11 PM when she was 97! I never felt like a burden to her. I always sensed it was a pleasure for her to treat me. In addition, she encouraged me in my work.

P.T. It seems that she was an angel!

C.E. Definitely!

P.T. Is your film going to be presented elsewhere in the world? If so, in which countries?

C.E. We just have been invited to Cuba and Ghana. I do not know when we will make this happen but I am sure it won’t be until 2017. The film is inspiring and universal because it celebrates the triumph of the human spirit. It is about women who overcame sexism, classism, discrimination and racism to achieve their dreams. This concerns everybody.

P.T. Are Black female students in medicine easily able to find a hospital for their residency training or do they face hurdles? In addition, what are the common obstacles they must face and overcome?

C.E. These questions are not easy to answer because I believe it is very complicated even if race does matter. It is a sensitive issue. Residency as a whole regardless of origins contains many challenges. It depends on the specialty and what you want to do. Residency depends on who appears to be the best. So many factors and components can be involved.

P.T. How can the number of Black females be raised in the medical field and the percentage of women as a whole in specialties where they are underrepresented such as psychiatry?

C.E. I think the media has to play an important part in this. To paraphrase Dr. Elders, you cannot be what you do not see. Women need to see images which convey the message that they are able to become the next brain surgeon while making it attractive. The same climate is required across the board regarding Black females. More positive media coverage is needed as opposed to negative images in many music videos for example which establish and maintain detrimental stereotypes. I can ask you or anybody this question: how many times we will see a woman being a surgeon? I believe it is only in 2016 where we can watch several shows where females are doctors such as Chicago Med, Black-ish and Grey’s Anatomy. Exposing people to these images is a start. It also begins with early childhood education.

P.T. Worldwide some people get into the best schools and programs just because they have connections, know the right people and their families give huge grants to institutions. In other words, it can also be a question of social class and privilege.

P.T. I speak several languages and some words that were created are not innocent. What I like with the English language is that you do not really have genders attached to words. In many Latin languages such as French, the word for physician is only masculine.

C.E. I see what you mean. The problem is all across the board. It is not limited to America. This issue can be limitative in the way it is presented in the language. We have the images that people usually see. This belief system needs to be changed. This is how the path can be opened for more women. Words create perceptions and formatted mindsets provoke actions towards genders.

Overall, the responsibility to increase the number of Black women in medicine has to be shared by society as a whole. The media has to play its part. Educators and career counselors need to encourage qualified young students to embrace this field. In addition, current physicians must be accessible to the youth and so on.

P.T. Morehouse is the college which trains the most future Black male physicians in your nation. What about the Black women, which university trains the most of them? How do you explain that even with the affirmative action policy which has been in place for decades, only circa 2% of all physicians in the U.S. are Black females? What are the historic and systemic obstacles?

C.E. I do not know what university trains the most Black women. So, I won’t elaborate on that. There are no more than 4 or 5 medical schools among HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) in my knowledge. Affirmative action policies have been changed around since the early seventies. There was a backlash and it was considered at some point as unconstitutional. I am referring to the Bakke decision1 in 1978. Since that time, people have moved away from affirmative action. The door was opened and the Bakke case closed it. You are also talking about belief systems which do not die easily. It takes generations to kill the disease of racism. It won’t happen overnight. Change can be unfortunately very slow. Again, it is very complicated and many factors need to be considered. You need to be prepared to go to medical school. This preparation starts very young and the foundation has to be really strong. In addition, higher educational institutions need to change their belief systems about who is qualified and who is not. The system also has to modify itself or it needs to be overhauled. Institutionalized racism exists and it is not limited to America. The colonized mentality and the oppressive mindset are alive elsewhere in the world. Many children are growing up in a society where the message sent is that all they can become is a janitor or solely other manual jobs. They rarely hear that they can be a doctor. Some parents also play a role in this. Certain adults do not see their own children transcending where they are in their lives. They internalized the beliefs and biases of the system. It is not an easy answer, it is complicated given that many factors are involved.

P.T. What challenges do female physicians face regarding family responsibilities? Did you notice if these tribulations were partially responsible for the glass ceiling, especially those who want to become a specialist? If so, how did they overcome these issues?

C.E. Some of the doctors have children. I did not sense it was difficult for them to find a balance between their personal and professional responsibilities. However, I noticed that the situation is not easy for surgeons. They have to be totally focused and concentrated while operating. They need to be in a special space in their minds and cannot be distracted by things which have nothing to do with the operation given that there is no room for errors. Studying a specialty takes a long time. In our film, Dr. Jennifer Ellis is a cardiothoracic surgeon. I think her specialty took 9 years of studies. So, for women it can be difficult to pursue lengthy studies like this especially if they want to create a family during their youth. They need to have strong social support. For female doctors, I think it can be hard to reach higher levels because of sexism but also physicians choose what they want to put their time into. There are obstacles but I believe it depends on the doctor’s personality. However, these women focused on their goals and put the difficulties aside. They avoided getting caught up on the hurdles and losing sight of their aspirations.

P.T. An African-American physician, Dr. Alvin Poussaint told me once that excellency is the best deterrent to discrimination.

C.E. Definitely!

P.T. A thirty minute version of your documentary was presented in schools. What are the main comments that you have received so far from youths?

C.E. This is a broad question. Young people viewed my film differently and responded in diverse ways. For instance, I went to speak this summer at a feminist camp and the reaction wasn’t the same as high school kids in Harlem or Washington D.C. There was a group of adolescents who aspired to become physicians. They felt inspired and empowered by watching the documentary. Both genders could identify themselves with the women who looked like them, their sisters, mothers, aunts, etc. Some among them had never seen or met an African-American doctor. Seeing the film made them feel that their dreams could be a reality. It gave them a sense of possibility for self-improvement. The kids at the camp identified with Dr. Claudia L. Thomas given that there are very few women in her field, orthopedic surgery. In addition, they felt she was accessible because very few physicians are called by their first name. Dr. Thomas is the first African-American female orthopedic surgeon in America. The young people related to her and she makes it easier to believe that they can follow her in her footsteps.

P.T. Talk to us about the companion book of your documentary Against all odds and where people worldwide can purchase it?

C.E. People can buy it on the official website www.changingthefaceofmedicine.org. It will be on amazon.com as of August. The book represents the story of the American dream. It is a beautiful collection of Black female doctors who overcame tremendous odds. Most of them are physicians and some are dentists. Readers will discover past generations of African-American female physicians, but mainly present-day ones who were candid to share their triumphs and vicissitudes with powerful statements. The book ends with a section regarding who could become the next generation of Black female doctors in the United States to inspire the youth.

P.T. What support is available for aspiring Black female physicians in terms of mentorship, etc.? Please, talk to us about the Mentoring in Medicine Program mentioned in the documentary.

C.E. I can think of the Merck pharmaceutical programs and the Robert Wood Johnson summer program for undergraduates. Both of these programs support the increase of minority students in the medical field. Being informally taught by an experienced physician can definitely be beneficial also given that she/he can transmit his/her knowledge about the clinical practice, etc. Earlier, I spoke about Dr. Petioni. She developed a mentorship program to help young African-American females for their careers in science and medicine. In this website http://medicalmentor.org/ future physicians can find valuable information and resources that will help them go forward in their journeys. Advanced Biology, the Human Diseases and Biomedical Careers In-Class Program (for high school students nationwide between 10 and 12 grade), the Medical Pathway Program (nationwide), the Emergency Department Clinical Exposure and Mentoring Program (in NY city) and the Science Pathfinders After School or Lunch and Learn Program (nationwide for middle school and high school students) are among the different programs of this organization.

Dr. Lynne Holden, M.D. (mentored by Dr. Petioni) is one of the physicians featured in the documentary and in the companion book. She created Mentoring in Medicine Inc. (MIM) with three other colleagues in 2006. This program gets involved in inner-cities from third grade through to health professional schools. It helps students to enroll in schools in medicine, nursing, and other health professions. More than 6,200 students participated since the scheme began, and more than 560 health professional volunteers were involved. In addition, the program had a positive impact on almost 15,000 students. Several among them became doctors or embraced another healthcare profession while they are giving back to their communities.

P.T. You raised $800, 000 to create your documentary. How did you succeed in getting the needed budget to make your film?

C.E. I was able to accomplish this thanks to the grace of God. I also have experience. For my first documentary The Deadliest Disease in America, I managed to raise $300, 000.

P.T. You are also brilliant because not everybody can do this.

C.E. There is no template on how to raise money. For every yes, I heard 100 nos. So, I had to be very determined and persistent. To provide donations, people expect us to be able to deliver a qualified product. You need to be prepared and master your subject. You have to be passionate about what you are doing. People sense this. It is not just a question of picking up a camera and starting to film. It is much more than this. Having the right attitude is highly important. You cannot have a sense of entitlement. I do not assume that because someone has money that he/she will write me a check.

P.T. I read the autobiography of Booker T. Washington. He shared the same philosophy and he was highly respected for this!

C.E. Interesting! I would like to add that a filmmaker needs a scenario that people will identify with. The same thing is true for a documentary. It has to speak to potential investors. Overall, it is hard work. It takes perseverance, an excellence in delivering what you engaged yourself of what you are supposed to do. You need to be able to connect with people. It took me four years to raise the money required. We filmed an open-heart surgery which is not cheap. We had to work with a crew, we needed insurance. The final footage spoke volumes. I am proud of the beauty of the documentary. One of the musicians Jay Hoggard said to me recently that there is so much love in the film that it makes the instruments sing.

P.T. You believe in God, can you share with us how your faith remained unshakable in spite of your physical difficulties?

C.E. I do not believe that my faith is unshakable. Creed in a higher power is a process, in my opinion. There are days when I wonder, “Why me?” I like to cut flowers and plant them in my garden. I look at them and admire their beauty. God waters them and the sun feeds them. I look at myself as a flower and art work in progress. It was not my idea to write the book and to make the film. It was given to me by a higher power. All the obstacles that I faced, I had to move through them and remind myself that there was a bigger picture. A divine energy helped and sustained me.

P.T. Once a beautiful young sister who is deaf and mute communicated to me with signs similar message. She reminded me about the beauty of the sun that illuminates the world.

C.E. It is a universal message. God is real energy and amazing things can happen when you are open to that. My belief in a higher power has always been part of my life. During my childhood, I used to ask my grandmother to pray for me. Faith sustains me and makes me strong to go through the vicissitudes of life. I am also grateful for the blessings that God gives me.

P.T. Talk to us about your organization URU, when it was founded, its mission, etc.?

C.E. My non-profit organization was created in 1995 and we produced work that challenges people’s perceptions and gets them to think differently about issues which are affecting their community. Everybody is included, we do not make differences, it can be about Native Americans, etc. We create bridges. In this regard, we bring together very diverse people in a safe place to share a dialogue and develop strategies. The main goal is to fight for social justice concerning everyone.

URU, The Right to Be Inc. also exists to develop artistic projects with two objectives in mind: to empower and encourage positive perspectives of ethnic groups, women, and persons with disabilities, and to elevate awareness around ideas and social issues that have an impact on society. The organization aims to advance education through: art-related events; hands-on training for inner city youth in the artistic and production aspects of creating and/or performing. URU also informs the public on subjects beneficial to the community, especially issues regarding race relations, breast cancer (through outreach strategies and mammography screenings), disability rights, HIV/AIDS and world ecology.

Our goal is to get rid of discrimination in society.  Our organization aims to expose racism in health care delivery.  The strategy we utilize to realize our vision and achieve our mission is to empower people, through film, workshops, and a leadership program, to take actions at the individual, organizational, and public policy levels to fight racism in health care. We want to be a catalyst while bringing together different organizations and individuals who are accomplishing the same purpose: a more humane America. URU’s motto is “to challenge hearts and minds through the arts.” To learn more, readers can visit http://www.urutherighttobe.org.

P.T. I did tap dancing for almost 15 years. You worked with the legendary Gregory Hines who was your friend. What is the most important thing you would like people to know about him?

C.E. He was a very kind human being. Gregory Hines taught me the importance of not taking yourself too seriously and be able to laugh at yourself. In other words, I am referring to the importance of keeping a sense of humor. He did not have any attitude and not an ounce of arrogance. He was very professional and was never late on film sets.

P.T. What filmmakers have you admired, since you decided to embrace their field? Furthermore, in terms of education what training helped you most to become a documentarist?

C.E. I love old movies like the ones with Sidney Poitier. I am thinking of Buck and the Preacher. It was directed by him. He also starred in it with Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee. I enjoyed Steel Magnolias and Lady Sings the Blues. Suzanne de Passe co-wrote it and was only in her twenties at the time. It really inspired me. King is another film that really spoke to me. As you can see I am mostly drawn to movies made in the seventies.

I do not think that my degrees helped me to be where I am and taught me how to make films. I do not particularly like documentaries even though I have made some. I believe I am a great storyteller, it is my forte. Since my youth, on trips into New York City, I was exposed to the theater and movies. These experiences made me discover the sway of storytelling through the films like the ones with Sidney Poitier.

P.T. Harriet Tubman is considered as the Black female Moses. She will be on the front of the U.S. $20 bill. What does this event mean to you, given that you created your first play in response to racism during your busing experience in your youth? Moreover, what were the name of your play and its plot?

C.E. I do not remember the name of the play because it was so many years ago. The plot was about Tubman freeing slaves. I think it is wonderful that she will be honored. It will make her the first woman on an American bill. This event will continue her legacy. Tubman was a big symbol of courage, determination and philanthropy. She inspired generations of Americans and other people in the world fighting for equality and civil rights. Tubman has been celebrated in different ways. For instance, in 1944, the United States Maritime Commission created the SS Harriet Tubman, its first Liberty ship ever named for an African-American female. In 1978, the United States Postal Service launched a stamp in honor of Tubman which made her the first Black American woman to be celebrated on a US postage stamp. More recently, in March 2013, Mr. President Barack Obama signed a proclamation establishing a Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument on the Eastern Shore.

P.T. Her contribution goes beyond the borders of your nation. In my country, in 1999, the Canadian government chose the Salem Chapel, British Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Catharines (in southern Ontario) as a National Historic Site because of its association with Tubman. In addition, she was named a National Historic Person of Canada since about ten years ago.

P.T. Can you talk about your first feature length documentary, The Deadliest Disease in America? Please, share with us how it was received by the public.

C.E. It is very difficult for people to talk about racism. Prejudice in health care is even more delicate because doctors take a vow to heal. And, as we see now America has to confront its racist thoughts.

Since October 2008, we have shown this documentary to more than thirteen locations including New York City, Hartford, New Haven, Yale Medical School, University of Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

The film represents a voice for people who have been silenced. The documentary is a tool to encourage a dialogue among audiences. We hope that the discussions will lead to real transformations of our dysfunctional health care system. While it gives a brief look of the toll that U.S. medical inequalities take on the families and individuals of “color” in our society, the film also showcases that individuals and organizations at different levels of society will no longer wait idly for a reform. The ultimate objective is to aim for universal health care.

As America’s population becomes more ethnically diverse, discrepancies in our health care system reveal feebleness that we cannot allow. The film, The Deadliest Disease in America, and companion workshops gave an outlook of these norms and created a thorough discussion on how these racial barriers can be destroyed. In this sense, the documentary was utilized to help community members and professionals comprehend how to identify racism in the health care system, and what to do about it.

P.T. You accomplished a lot professionally and you succeeded. When you shared your goals with people, you probably met naysayers. How did you learn to ignore them or not be affected by them? In addition, what support did you have throughout the years?

C.E. I have never been afraid of my identity and who I am not. I grew up amid a very loving environment. I was raised around people that said you can be whatever you want as long as you work very hard for it and you give your best even if they did not know what I wished to become. So, in other words my upbringing was really nurturing and did not create barriers in my mind. My grandmother MaMat was my greatest supporter. My dad bragged about his kids. I grew up in a community that really was a village. This is what it takes to raise a child.

When I said in the fifth grade I wanted to be an actress, not everybody knew all its implications but would definitely buy the tickets for the play to encourage me. When you have this kind of support throughout your life you feel that the sky is the limit.

P.T. In your book you wrote about an important ancestor, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler. Would you mind introducing her to our readers?

C.E. She was the first African-American woman in my nation to become a Doctress of medicine in the 19th century. Dr. Crumpler broke a tremendous glass ceiling with all the vicissitudes she had to face during her era. She had a lot of patience and was very courageous. She was born free in 1831 in Christiana, Delaware. She worked as a nurse before she became a physician in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College one year before the end of the Civil war. Missionary work was important to her. In this regard, Dr. Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia to pursue this goal. Because of segregation, she provided health care to freed slaves with other physicians because they could not be treated elsewhere. It is important to mention that her book entitled A Book of Medical Discourses was one of the first written by an African-American physician in 1883. The book was mainly addressed to nurses and mothers. It emphasized the care of females and children.

P.T. What do you want the public to take away from your latest book and documentary?

C.E. I hope that people will be able to identify themselves with the stories and/or will be inspired by them to accomplish their own dreams (not necessarily to become doctors). In other words, I would like to believe that my work sparks a light on the brilliance of the audience and that it transcends the medical world. The triumphs of the female doctors help to destroy self-censorship in terms of reaching one’s own goals.

Black Women in Medicine narrates the tales of African American female doctors by following their journeys from inequality to excellence. The documentary represents an agent of social change and inspires a new generation of doctors of all origins and genders.  

The film replaces negative imagery—mainstream media’s false and degrading historical description regarding race, ethnicity, gender and character—with positive images of successful Black female doctors.

The main goal of this initiative is to raise the percentage of African American physicians in America from 4% in 2016 to 7% by 2030. Currently, Blacks represent solely 4% of the physician workforce under the age of 40. The percentage is smaller for female minority doctors. It is important that the medical workforce mirrors the diversity of the society it aids.

The most important thing that I learned in the documentary is you need to love what you do and not allow any distractions to keep you from accomplishing your goal. This mantra remains true for any dream that someone wishes to pursue.

When I started Black Women in Medicine, I had no clue how big it would become or where it would take me in the long run but I was convinced that the stories of these admirable women needed to be shared with the public to inspire people.

Concerning more specifically my book, Against All Odds, I chose to enlarge the scope beyond the doctors included in the documentary. My team and I reached out to Black female physicians all over the nation. The response was amazing, and in a few months we had a hundred doctors representing diverse medical specialties who all were very happy to be a part of the initiative.

P.T. You are an activist on many fronts. In your opinion, what are the main issues regarding disability rights?

P.T. What other future projects can you share with us?

C.E. I am completing a novel which is 700 pages entitled Without a Trace. It is a love story. I am working on a book series for children called Little man. I am on the third one. These series are addressed to urban elementary students. I believe that these children will identify with the characters of the books and can benefit from this. In this regard, my first book for kids Little Man’s Fourth Grade Journey is now part of the curriculum in multiple school districts. In addition, Little Man Loses His Tooth has been well received in educational districts of my country.

P.T. You are an activist on many fronts. In your opinion, what are the main issues regarding disability rights?

C.E. I believe that people with disabilities are still considered invisible and voiceless. I am somebody who is living this situation and speaks out about it. There are issues regarding the labor force. There are young college people with disabilities who earned their degrees and nobody will hire them. An executive who had an accident can become disabled and might have difficulties keeping his job. The problems that disabled people face are complex and wide: housing accommodations, etc.

P.T. You said to the media you lived in three countries. Which one and what nation in your opinion had the best health care system and why?

C.E. I lived in Paris (France), Germany and America. The systems are very distinctive and it would be difficult for me to say which one is the best because they all operated very differently. I do not think that socialized medicine is any better than what we are getting in America or vice versa. At the end of the day, it is a question of a physician being a good doctor.

P.T. Thanks for this very interesting interview and I wish you a lot of success beyond your dreams with your projects in the future.

[2017 Update]:  The film Black Women in Medicine will premiere on public television (WORLD Channel) Wednesday, February 8 at 6 p.m. during Black History Month

The book can be ordered at www.changingthefaceofmedicine.org/orderbook/against-all-odds   


You can also follow the documentarist @BlackWomenMDs on Twitter, and visit Facebook.com/BlackWomenMDs on Facebook.

To learn more about the book, click here https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55554c6de4b075eeaec5736a/t/564675ace4b0aa1ddb58975e/1447458220326/sampler+11.10.15.pdf

To see the trailer of Black Women in Medicine: https://crystal-emery.squarespace.com/film/

The trailer of The Deadliest Disease in Americahttp://www.urutherighttobe.org/disease/trailer.php

Trailer of Experiments on People of Color http://www.urutherighttobe.org/disease/experiments.php


Regents of the University of California v. Bakke 438 U.S. 265 (1978), source:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regents_of_the_University_of_California_v._Bakke