Featured photo: Crystal Towers resident Michael Douglas is a protagonist in the short documentary “United.” (film still)

The camera zooms in on Michael Douglas’ face, years of life reflected in the slight wrinkles under his eyes and the white in his goatee. His eyes are closed, but the first line to come out of his mouth speaks volumes.

“We’ve got people living in two- and three- and five-hundred thousand dollar homes and we’re living in deficient housing, meaning Crystal Towers,” Douglas says.

Thus starts the short documentary “United,” which follows a small but determined group of residents — many of whom are elderly or disabled — who live in Winston-Salem’s 11-story, low-income housing facility.

The film, which is streaming on Vimeo, was created by Louie Poore and Parker Beverly as an assignment for Wake Forest’s documentary film program of which they are now graduates. The two, who both reside in Winston-Salem, were searching for the right topic for their film when they first heard residents and activists speaking about Crystal Towers at a city council meeting.

UNITED from Louie Poore on Vimeo.

“I thought, Wow, that’s incredible,” Poore recalls after hearing activist Dan Rose, with Housing Justice Now, advocating on behalf of residents last year.

In the past several years, a dedicated group of residents and activists like Rose have coalesced around improving living conditions at Crystal Towers. Many news outlets, including TCB, have reported on the subpar living conditions afflicting residents including mold, broken elevators and even a recent fire. The result is a group called Crystal Towers United, which in large part has been led by resident Michael Douglas.

Crystal Towers (photo by Gale Melcher)

The film, which spans just about 16 minutes long, captures snapshots of residents fighting for change through speaking at city council meetings, strategizing at Rose’s dinner table and meeting in the library.

At first, Poore says that he didn’t know much about Crystal Towers United. He had read past reporting about the plight of residents at the complex, including TCB’s cover story last year, but became enmeshed in the dynamics of the group after Rose began inviting him to some of their meetings. And what he saw captivated him.

“The group is very clear-eyed of the challenges they face, and they are pretty determined to overcome them,” Poore says. “I felt like, Hey, I think there are stories here that people would want to know more about.”

Over the course of a few weeks, Poore and Beverly followed the group around on a half dozen occasions and captured about 20 hours of footage, much of which focuses on Douglas.

As a longtime resident of the building, Douglas is a natural protagonist. But his penchant for public speaking and activism didn’t stop with his living space. In November 2023, Douglas announced that he would be running for a seat on city council in the Northwest Ward. Douglas is currently running as an unaffiliated candidate and is working to get enough signatures to get on the ballot for March 5. If that doesn’t pan out, he told TCB that he would pursue a write-in campaign. In the film, Poore and Beverly capture Douglas’ journey and reasoning for running for office.

Crystal Towers resident Michael Douglas is a protagonist in the short documentary “United.” (film still)

During a November city council meeting, Douglas takes the podium and speaks directly to city council members. He starts by criticizing the fact that a board that runs Crystal Towers doesn’t represent the residents before announcing his intentions to run for office.

“Unfortunately when you put people on the board who don’t know how we live and don’t walk in our shoes, it’s like having taxation without representation; we all know that’s un-American,” Douglas says. “We need you to think about us and because that has not been done, I’m throwing my hat in the ring to run for city council, and I have to do this because I was called upon to do this.”

But like so many underdog stories, the film touches on the core reasoning why regular citizens become activists: because the powers at be, aren’t doing anything to help them, and often, are working against them.

“It wasn’t right,” Douglas says, reflecting on his speech at city council. “I shouldn’t have been there; I shouldn’t have had to complain; I shouldn’t have been forced to run for office.”

And at the 14-minute mark in the film, viewers finally see the point driven home. 

For the residents of Crystal Towers, this isn’t just a one-time film project; it’s their livelihoods. And they’ve been fighting for it for years. 

And Poore understands that. 

“This film is very much a moment in time,” Poore says. “This is a slice of life for Crystal Towers United.”

Because even once the cameras stop rolling, the work continues.

Watch the film here. Read TCB’s past reporting on Crystal Towers here.

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