Review: 'Crystal Diaries' a Raw, Powerful Response to Drugs and Tragedy in LA's House & Ball Community

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday August 8, 2021

'Crystal Diaries'
'Crystal Diaries'  (Source:Outfest 2021)

After a 26-year-old African American man named Gemmel Moore died in July 2017, at the West Hollywood residence of Ed Buck of what an autopsy report characterized as an overdose of meth, nothing much seemed to happen in the way of legal repercussions.

Moore's diary contained references to Buck having shot him up on previous occasions with meth; Moore's mother, and others in the community, wondered whether Buck's political connections might have shielded him from an investigation (he was a donor to Democratic candidates), if the fact that Moore was Black while Buck was white might have factored in.

A second overdose death of a Black man at Buck's residence in 2019 - this time of a 55-year-old onetime Gay Games gold medalist named Timothy Dean - only sharpened those suspicions and spurred calls for action. Protestors gathered in front of Buck's home to give voice to their concerns.

Filmmaker Enyce Smith, who knew Moore from the Los Angeles LGTBQ House & Ball Community, decided to make a documentary about Moore's death, and, more broadly, the challenges faced by Black LGBTQ people. Five members of the House & Ball Community appear in Smith's film, "Crystal Diaries," to talk about those challenges

Jerome Kitchen, of the Minority Health Project, shares how he turned to cocaine to get through his days. He ended up homeless. So did Ryku Bell, the CEO of RyB Productions, producer of the film.

Choreographer Daveione Williams' mother relates how his mother was a crack addict. Thomas Davis, the director of the Catharsis Project, talks frankly about the struggle to stay off drugs, and about relapsing. Ayanna Miller describes the vicious circle of how addicts can turn to sex work in order to buy drugs - but then need the drugs in order to do the work.

Moore's mother, Trisha Nixon, who was actively involved in efforts to bring charges against Buck, appears as well, describing what it was like to hear of a second fatality at Buck's residence, and describing how Gemmel had told her about his experiences at Buck's hands. She sent her son to the police, "and they turned him away." Now that her son has died, she says, "the first thing they say is, 'Your son was an escort.' That does not matter."

The ballroom scene is a place of community -- even family -- for many young LGBTQ people of color. It's also a scene where drug use is prevalent. At a meeting to discuss the challenges of addiction, and the realities of being a person of color and LGBTQ, participants talk about that need for community and the ready availability of drugs like meth. The need for resources to assist people looking to get off drugs is a focal point...but so are the challenges of being black and gay.

Some of the film's most powerful passages occur when director Enyce Smith reads aloud from Moore's diary, choking up when he comes to moments like the one in which he reads Gemmel's thoughts about wanting to kill himself, but "I'll let Ed Buck do it."

It wasn't until a third man overdosed at Buck's home on Sept. 17, 2019 that Buck was arrested.

That man fled Buck's home, received medical attention, and survived. In August, additional charges were brought in the case, which already included charges of human trafficking and various drugs-related crimes. He was denied bail last September.

Questions remain as to why it took so long, and why another man after Moore had to die, while a third might very well also have ended up dead, before the arrest was made. Those questions might never receive a satisfactory answer.

In the meantime, there's "Crystal Diaries," a raw and powerful document of rage...also a message of strength and hope. "Screenings of this film are intended to open up discussions regarding methamphetamine addiction, and offer strategies for healing and sobriety in the black community," the film's description says. "No one has to take on this fight alone."

"Crystal Diaries" plays at Outfest Film Festival.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.