If Raoul Peck’s previous two films––the sweeping essay documentary I Am Not Your Negro and the painterly authorial portrait The Young Karl Marx––set aims to national and global-scale politics, then his new documentary Silver Dollar Road pulls the microscope out and offers a far more intimate, distinct example of the grander sociological themes he’s been excavating throughout his filmography. His latest forgoes the landmark figures and events of racial and class history. Instead our sights are set on an extended Black family in North Carolina and the white developers who aim to steal their rightful, generationally owned property known as Silver Dollar Road.
Peck supplements the events of the film, taken from Lizzie Presser’s in-depth reporting for ProPublica and The New Yorker, with contextual title cards that give an idea of what happened to Black-owned properties following Reconstruction in the South. A family-tree diagram takes us through the generations of the Reels family and down to concentrating on the middle-generation brothers Melvin and Licurtis, whose houses on the property come under direct attack from real-estate developers Adams Creek Associates. They claim that Melvin and Licurtis’ mere existence on the property of their ancestors, who raised it after the end of slavery, is a violation. In doing so, Peck makes the declaration that the experiences of even one Black family are inextricably tied to a long, systemic history of discrimination in the United States. This, of course, shouldn’t be news to anyone, but what is interesting about Peck’s film is its ability to extrapolate politics through history and land while maintaining the intimacy of a family portrait.
Stylistically, Peck’s documentary is put together in a rudimentary manner that doesn’t differentiate itself from the standard educational film one might have been shown as a student in school, but there is a clear-eyed intentionality to this. It is a movie that aims to make no mistake of the political and social webs of which its subjects are only the latest victims, to put what they have to say at the forefront––beyond any artistic license of the filmmaker. At the same time, Peck’s methodical structure allows for their story to organically build in the viewers’ mind as having implications far beyond the limits of the Carolina coastal region. Peck consciously highlights the most harrowing statistics of Presser’s research, like how Black families lost nearly 90% of their farmland between 1910 and 1970. Much of this is due to the difficulty of maintaining “heir’s property,” or property that is passed down without an official will. The total estimated value of that land today is $28 billion; the current median wealth among Black families is one-tenth that of white families.
Different members from multiple generations of the Reels family give an account of their experience on their land, from summer parties to fishing trips on the family boats––which are also part of their livelihood as shrimpers, selling to local markets––and treks in the woods. Melvin himself knows the place like the back of his hand: he takes Peck and the camera crew through unmarked areas in the woods, recalling where many events happened and houses used to be, walking the crew to the family cemetery where Mitchell Reels, his grandfather and the original family owner of the land since 1911, eternally rests. Sweeping panoramas of the area through drone cameras juxtaposed with old pictures of the land give an idea of its development and growth from scratch by the family––both in homes and vegetation––and contextualize exactly what the ironically named white “developers” aim to destroy. In one animated diagram, which details the developers’ construction plans, Mamie––Melvin and Licurtis’ sister––explains that she believes the destruction of Melvin and Licurtis’ homes to create shipping docks for white people’s expensive private boats is only the first step in eventually pricing out the entire community from the area.
It’s a story as old as time and it’s happening again and again. That the Reels family’s plight in the fight against real-estate developers seems like a cliché––courts stacked against them, unjust guilty verdicts, prison sentences, protests erupting, gentrification––is the biggest indictment on the state of the nation. If Silver Dollar Road feels familiar, like a story you’ve heard a million times before, that’s because it painfully is––you don’t have to wonder how many more versions of this same kind of story are out there untold and yet to be reported.
Silver Dollar Road premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and opens in theaters on October 13 and arrives on Prime Video on October 20.