film Silver Dollar Road Review – Another Raoul Peck Documentary Triumph
In swift succession, the documentarian Raoul Peck has built a reputation as a connoisseur of the visual essay. His Oscar-nominated 2017 film I Am Not Your Negro reinvigorated the astonishing legacy of essayist and critic James Baldwin through a dramatization of notes on his relationships with such civil rights luminaries as Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. The 2021 series Exterminate All the Brutes assembled an impressive bricolage of historical documents, archival footage, personal history, cultural ephemera, scripted scenes, animation and infographics to illuminate nothing less than the genocidal origins and cascading impacts of European colonialism.
Silver Dollar Road, Peck’s latest film, focuses on one Black family’s decades-long legal fight to maintain ownership of their coastal property in North Carolina, but its scope is by no means narrow. The 100-minute film opens with a title card nodding to the unfulfilled promises of Reconstruction: in January 1865, just before emancipation, the Union general William Tecumseh Sherman met with 20 Black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, and asked what they needed. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor,” answered the ministers’ representative, Rev Garrison Frazier.
Peck evokes this legacy of Black land ownership – its ideological priority for newly freed people, its elusiveness in the years following Reconstruction, its meaning for generations of descendants – throughout Silver Dollar Road, an expansive family portrait that is at once gentle and wry, proud and infuriating. As with his two most recent releases, Silver Dollar Road again asserts Peck’s mastery of the essay-film. Or, more accurately in this case, a screen translation of a 2019 ProPublica long-form article on the brothers Melvin and Licurtis Reels, who spent eight years in jail for refusing to leave the land on which they were raised, and the pernicious issue of legally sanctioned Black land theft. (As a title card points out, Black farmers lost 90% of their land during the 20th century.)
The film’s success hinges on Peck’s ability to convey, via legal documents, family photos, interviews and an illustrated family tree, both the emotional significance of the Reelses’ land to the larger Black community and a dense thicket of legalese. Yet for all its generations of Reelses and court documents, the film is neither arcane nor opaque. On the contrary, Peck’s portrait teems with life. Old photos and home videos attest to the vitality of Silver Dollar Road, a Black beach haven in a largely white county. The family details their living made from the land and brackish inland waters; Melvin waxes about his Fantasy Island nightclub and lifelong work as a shrimper. The illustrations – proud faces on the roots and vines of lineage – restore a sense of dignity to a beleaguered family and successfully delineate a bevy of a nieces, nephews, greats and great-greats, many of whom attest to the land’s spiritual and emotional significance.
Peck appears to have embedded with the Reelses for several years, up through the matriarch Gertrude’s 95th birthday in 2021. Gertrude inherited the property from her father, Mitchell Reels, who purchased the land just a generation removed from slavery. Distrustful of a legal system that had disenfranchised and abused many a Black man, Mitchell never composed a will, instead bequeathing the land into a complicated legal limbo known as heirs’ property, in which each descendant inherits an interest, as in a holding stock company. Unbeknown to Gertrude and her eight children, including Melvin and Licurtis, one of Mitchell’s out-of-state siblings ignored a court order and sold his share to a developer keen on waterfront real estate – not an unusual occurrence for heirs’ property, which is disproportionately owned by Black Americans. After years of tending to their land, Melvin and Licurtis were informed that, at least in the eyes of the law, they did not actually own it, and could be jailed for trespassing by remaining in their homes.
Peck slow rolls the fact that the Reels brothers spent eight years in jail for contempt of court – not prison, because they were never convicted of a crime – and the effect is jaw-dropping, the legal justification effectively portrayed as flimsy and galling. There’s Melvin, furious and defiant. There’s Licurtis, befuddled yet steadfast. There’s their sister Mamie, unflappable and determined, and their many relatives and friends, who see through a legal system that seems to favor the cutthroat and greedy, one still used to dispossess Black families for profit. As one lawyer put it: “It defies logic that any of that constitutes justice.”
Silver Dollar Road persistently and effectively favors the psychological toll of all this – the emotional truth so callously disregarded by the law – without sacrificing clarity, though I do wish it provided more of the context supplied by the original article or grounded the Reelses case even further in historical precedent. Still, it is a triumph of personal, sensitive film-making that sheds light on a shadowy vestige of Jim Crow, an argument that’s infuriating and informative without ever tipping into sensationalism. It’s not quite justice but, given the many times the Reelses say their story was exploited by lawyers for pay without reprieve, still a restoration of some kind.
Silver Dollar Road was screened at the Toronto film festival and released in cinemas on 13 October and on Amazon Prime on 21 October.