Raoul Peck’s ‘Silver Dollar Road’ chronicles a Black family’s battle to hold onto their land

by Madison Thomas
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Raoul Peck’s latest film, “Silver Dollar Road,” is a poignant portrayal of the Reels family’s struggle to retain ownership of their ancestral land. This powerful documentary, which opens in theaters this Friday and will be available for streaming on Prime Video from December 19, delves into the story of the Reels family in North Carolina.

For generations, the Reels have held and inhabited a remarkable 65-acre waterfront property along Adams Creek in Carteret County, known as Silver Dollar Road. This land has been a part of their family since the days of Reconstruction, tracing back to their ancestors’ emancipation from slavery. Elijah Reels officially claimed ownership in 1911, but the absence of a will led to the land being categorized as heirs’ property, jointly owned by numerous Reels descendants.

However, a distant relative’s sale of 13 acres placed some of the most coveted waterfront real estate into the hands of developers. In a heart-wrenching turn of events, Licurtis Reels and Melvin Davis, who grew up on this land, were accused of trespassing. After a protracted legal battle, they were ultimately sentenced to eight years in prison for their refusal to comply with a court order to vacate the property.

Raoul Peck, renowned for his incisive documentary work, keeps the narrative intimately connected to the Reels’ experience and their cherished land. The film is replete with images of vines entwined around the family tree, evoking the deep roots of Silver Dollar Road. While the story is specific to this family, it reverberates with the broader historical context of Black landownership and its exploitation. Shockingly, between 1910 and 1997, Black Americans lost an estimated 90% of their farmland, often due to the heirs’ property system.

Peck’s approach to documentary filmmaking is not merely about storytelling; it aims to create a profound and thought-provoking exploration of important issues. However, he laments that the landscape of documentary filmmaking is evolving, and streaming platforms are contributing to more formulaic approaches. He believes that some companies are even using algorithms to shape documentaries, making the genre less diverse and innovative.

Despite these challenges, Peck, who previously served as Haiti’s Minister of Culture, remains committed to using cinema as a vehicle for political and historical examination. His films delve into stories of injustice and atrocity, shedding light on neglected aspects of history. His 2021 HBO documentary series, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” connects the enslavement of Africans to the genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America and explores other historical intersections.

In “Silver Dollar Road,” based on a 2019 ProPublica article by Lizzie Presser, Peck chooses to spotlight Mamie Reels Ellison and Kim Renee Duhon, two resilient women who have dedicated decades to defending their ancestral home. Rather than focusing on a clear antagonist, Peck keeps the antagonistic forces faceless, emphasizing the connection between identity and home and the feeling of intrusion when outsiders seek to dispossess the Reels of their land.

Raoul Peck’s intention is clear: he wants Black and minority audiences to feel a sense of belonging throughout the film. He refuses to depict the antagonists as individuals but rather as symbols of a system driven by danger, money, and power. This deliberate approach ensures that the film remains a safe and welcoming space for its audience.

While “Silver Dollar Road” may not offer a Hollywood-style happy ending, it reflects the resilience of the Reels family and their determination to stand their ground. The film serves as a testament to their enduring spirit, and as Raoul Peck asserts, “We’ll survive. Those two women, they’re still standing.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about landownership

What is “Silver Dollar Road” about?

“Silver Dollar Road” is a documentary film directed by Raoul Peck that tells the story of the Reels family in North Carolina. It chronicles their multi-generational battle to hold onto their ancestral land, known as Silver Dollar Road, and the challenges they face in the face of property disputes and development.

Why is the Reels family’s land ownership significant?

The Reels family’s land ownership is significant because it reflects a broader history of Black landownership and its exploitation. Their land has been in the family since the days of Reconstruction, and the film highlights the complexities of heirs’ property, a system that has played a role in the loss of land by Black Americans.

What is the central message of the documentary?

The documentary focuses on themes of identity, home, and the systemic challenges faced by Black families in protecting their land. It also sheds light on the broader issues of historical injustice and the impact of land dispossession.

How does Raoul Peck approach documentary filmmaking?

Raoul Peck is known for his politically and historically driven approach to documentary filmmaking. He uses cinema as a means to explore stories of injustice and atrocity that are often overlooked in popular culture, making his films personal, passionate, and rigorously engaging.

What distinguishes “Silver Dollar Road” from other documentaries?

“Silver Dollar Road” stands out by putting the family’s experience at the center of the narrative rather than focusing on drama or villains. It aims to make Black and minority audiences feel at ease, emphasizing the systemic challenges faced by the Reels family rather than individual antagonists.

Is there a happy ending in “Silver Dollar Road”?

No, the documentary does not offer a Hollywood-style happy ending. It portrays the challenges faced by the Reels family realistically. However, it serves as a testament to their resilience and determination to stand their ground, even in the absence of a conventional happy ending.

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