In 2021, Raoul Peck released Exterminate All the Brutes, an extraordinary HBO docuseries chronicling the history of white supremacy, its mythology and the rise of fascism around the world. It was a powerful project that, like his Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, presented a cogent thesis about the rot of racism. In these works, the director foregrounded an essayistic narrative, using words to guide viewers through the brutality of Western civilization.
Peck takes a more conventional route in his latest documentary, but the results are no less stirring. In Silver Dollar Road, the Haitian filmmaker constructs an intimate drama about one family’s decades-long struggle to protect their land from developer encroachment. The Reels’ story will be familiar to anyone attuned to the contradictions embedded in America’s legal system and the failed promises of Reconstruction.
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When Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reel refused to leave the waterfront portion of their family’s 65-acre property — a marshy tract that runs along Silver Dollar Road in North Carolina — the county jailed them for civil contempt. The contested area had been in their family for generations; their great-grandfather, a man only decades removed from slavery, bought it nearly a century ago. The brothers’ grandfather Mitchell Reels inherited it and, because he didn’t trust the courts, let the land become heirs’ property in lieu of drawing up a will. In her investigation for ProPublica and The New Yorker, Lizzie Presser explains the twisted legal path that landed the brothers in jail and dispossesses thousands of Black families across the country.
Heirs’ properties are an ownership model by which descendants inherit fractions of the land like board members holding company stock. The practice dates back to the Reconstruction era, when newly freed African Americans were barred from the legal system. It helped them keep land in the family, but the reality is that heirs’ property is a nightmare and a leading cause in Black landowners’ involuntary property loss. Wily developers buy one descendant’s share, which effectively jeopardizes the entire property and allows it to be auctioned off. That’s what happened to the Reels family: An uncle, who hadn’t lived in Silver Dollar Road for 27 years, sold his share of the land to developers in a shady deal, leaving the rest of the heirs scrambling for legal recourse.
Peck effectively lays out the details of the Reels’ case, but his documentary is also a humanistic endeavor. Whereas Presser’s report began with Davis and Reels’ imprisonment, Peck builds a narrative of their family’s life before diving into the court case and its collateral damage. In that way, Silver Dollar Road complements Jon-Sesrie Goff’s searching documentary After Sherman and Sarah Broom’s lyrical memoir The Yellow House, works that distance themselves from notions of property as exclusively capital and investigate Black displacement as violent ruptures to communal spaces and sites of memory.
Silver Dollar Road reveals the intangible ruins of land loss. The film opens in November 2021 with a birthday party for Gertrude Reels, who at 95 years is the oldest heir to the property. An intergenerational chorus of family members sings “Happy Birthday” before individuals toast the elder matriarch. They express gratitude for the years she spent nurturing them — preparing flowers, cooking meals and making everyone feel proud of their community. They didn’t have a lot of money growing up in Silver Dollar Road, but they felt loved and taken care of. Editor Alexandra Strauss makes quick cuts between these speeches and close-ups of an increasingly tearful Gertrude, highlighting the overt affection and underlying devotion of these relationships.
Later, through interviews with family members from Gertrude’s daughter Mamie Ellison to Melvin and Licurtis, a portrait of Silver Dollar Road’s community comes into focus. Nearly everyone shares memories and anecdotes of learning to swim in the creek or exploring the forests. They recall reunions and celebrations, funerals and more somber gatherings.
Starting with the voices of the Reels adds more urgency to their ongoing legal battle. Developers trying to build expensive vacation homes on their property threaten a livelihood built over generations. Peck adds interviews with lawyers and scholars to supplement conversations with the family. The financial and emotional toll of keeping the land becomes more apparent in the latter half of the doc, especially when the Reels discuss the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on legal fees. Some members of the family tear up when reflecting on how their lives have been stalled because they chose to stay and fight.
Peck interrupts these testimonies sparingly with textual interstices that define critical terms and add historical context. But perhaps what’s most engaging about Silver Dollar Road are the interviews with Davis and Reels about their near-decade in jail. (The scenes are brought to life with striking impressionistic color sketches.) The subjects focus on the passage of time — the 23 hours a day spent sitting in tiny cells, the rare moments of contact with the outside and the slow realization that they are being made into examples by county officials.
The impact of their incarceration indeed ripples throughout the community. Gertrude, once an avid gardener, stops going outside, choosing to sit by the phone waiting for her boys to call. Other members of the Reels family hold demonstrations protesting the brothers’ imprisonment and write letters so the pair don’t feel alone. But the correspondences also show the gap left by their absence.
These moments make Silver Dollar Road as much evidence of the systemic challenges faced by Black people in the United States as it is a tenderly observed portrait of a family fighting to survive.
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