Silver Dollar Road
(USA, 100 mins.)
Dir. Raoul Peck
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
Reflecting on the treatment of indigenous people by early American settlers in his previous work, the four-part documentary Exterminate All the Brutes, director Raoul Peck noted that “in U.S. history everything is about the land.” Peck holds up a magnifying glass to inspect this point further in his powerful new documentary Silver Dollar Road. It’s a film that highlights how the unquenchable thirst for land directly impacts a Black family.
At 95-years-old, Gertrude Reels has remained steadfast in adhering to her father’s wishes before his passing that “whatever you do, don’t let the white man have my land.” The land he is referring to is 65 acres along Adams Creek in Carteret County, North Carolina, which her family has owned since 1911. While a significant chunk of terrain, its value to Reels and others is not monetary, but rather the wealth of history and the sense of community that it holds.
For generations the land, locally known as Silver Dollar Road, has been a safe haven for the Black community. When racial laws banned people of colour from attending white only beaches, Reels’ family allowed members of the Black community to access the one on their waterfront property. They provided a space where Black people could experience joy without fear of being harassed by the police.
Peck emphasizes this by introducing viewers to various member of Reels’ family and the communal warmth they each bring. Through their accounts, home movies, and archival photographs, Silver Dollar Road crafts a vibrant quilt of the loving memories they shared over the years. The sacrifices that were made to ensure that the younger generation received an education, the in-depth knowledge of the land and those who are buried on it, tales of the various parties they enjoyed are all woven into this portrait of community.
The joyous bubble of their existence was popped when a wave of unexpected legal problems hit in the late 1970s. Although Reels’ father, Mitchell, had purchased the land from his father, he died without having a will. As a result, the property was left to all his heirs. Unbeknownst to the family, Reel’s uncle Shedrick went to court with a deed saying he owned 13 acres of the land, specifically the lucrative waterfront property. The legitimacy of this deed was never scrutinized by the courts, despite Reels’ family have documentation showing they owned the land. Worse, Shedrick apparently sold the property, without the family’s consent, to local developers Adams Creek Associates.
Complicating matters further was the fact that Reels’ sons Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels had homes on the land in question. Melvin even had a long running fishing business that ran from the docks on the beach. As neither of the brothers had any intention of leaving their homes, or the land that they literally grew up on, the stage was set for a lengthy standoff between the family and the developers. It’s one that resulted in Melvin and Licurtis, in their fifties and sixties at the time, doing eight years in jail for trespassing on their own land.
Using the article written by Lizzie Presser, and published by ProPublica and The New Yorker, as the foundation of the film, Peck constructs a riveting tale of racial injustice and the importance of practising resistance in the face of an unfair system. Silver Dollar Road makes it clear that every structure within the legal system, from judges to lawyers to prison institutions, has been historically designed to work against Black people. Early on in the documentary Peck notes that over the 20th century “Black Americans lost about 90% of their farmland” to white supremacy groups who terrorizes farmers and forced Black families to leave their land via acts of violence including lynching.
The gang-like terror never disappeared, it just simply dressed itself in the respectable suits of the legal and political systems. Throughout the documentary Peck notes the various tactics used to get Melvin and Licurtis off their land, including death threats and blowing up Melvin’s boat, and the ways the family was taken advantage of legally. Lawyers kept demanding more money to work on the case despite not providing any real results, the family would wait for hours on prison visitation day to see the incarcerated brothers only to be denied access, law enforcement would question Reels and family member to intimidate them—the litany of abuse feels endless.
Peck does a wonderful job of capturing the physical and mental toll this lengthy fight took on Melvin, Licurtis, Reels, and the whole family. In one of the film’s most heart-wrenching sequences, the director uses painted animation to depict the hardship and isolation that Melvin and Licurtis endured in prison. The recurring image of tree branches entering the frame of these scenes effectively reminds the audience that the men’s fight against a crooked system was not merely about them, but their entire family as well.
Similar to the young girls who sing “this is our house” while walking done the beloved road, Silver Dollar Road is a captivating work that embraces resistance as a vital part of the Black experience. As one of Reels’ daughters points out, the justice system has always worked against Black people and shows no sign of changing anytime soon. Being able to push back the feet of those who attempt to walk all over you is just as important as the land you stand on to do it.