THE STORY – Members of a family fight to reclaim their waterfront property that was unjustly ripped from their ancestral embrace.
THE CAST – Gertrude Reels, Billy Reels, Charles Lee Reels & Licurtis Reels
THE TEAM – Raoul Peck (Director/Writer) & Lizzie Presser (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
It is one of the ugliest and most shameful chapters in United States history — the theft of the land owned by people of color by white settlers and businessmen. Such theft is, of course, the subject of Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” in which the native Osage people have their oil-rich land stolen by white gangsters who were not above-using violence and even murder to achieve their ends. But such theft goes on even to this day, captured by writer/director Raoul Peck in “Silver Dollar Road,” in which Black Americans have their valuable land taken away from them by an even more insidious means — the law itself.
Peck, who explored another side of racism in his Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” turns his focus to the Reels family, who for several generations have owned an expansive parcel of land off the coast of North Carolina. Purchased by Elijah Reels in 1911, the property was developed into a community where his family and other Black citizens could live and thrive without fear for their safety. Elijah lost the property in 1939. Still, it was bought again five years later by his son Mitchell. But when Mitchell died in 1970, he failed to leave a will. As a result, the family’s property along Silver Dollar Road became what was legally known as “heirs’ property,” where each descendant inherits an interest, similar to being a shareholder in a company.
“Silver Dollar Road” illustrates the strong bond that the family members have for one another with clarity, but once the “heirs’ property” issue comes into the film, Peck gets deep into the weeds trying to explain its complicated significance. Yes, it’s key to know just how legally vulnerable the family has now become, but for long stretches in the second act, the film bogs down into such legal minutiae that it threatens to stop the film’s narrative flow dead in its tracks.
Happily, fate intervenes, and a much-needed bad guy emerges: Adams Creek Associates. It’s a powerful development company that has gobbled up communities along the North Carolina coast and is seeking to do the same to the Reels property by convincing each heir to sell his share to them for a lucrative price. They soon take their case to court, where a white judge rules that the development company is now indeed the rightful owner of Silver Dollar Road and orders the families to vacate their properties.
If every good story needs a bad guy, so too does it need a hero, and Peck provides two: descendants Melvin and Licurtis Reels, who refuse to vacate their family home and are willing, if necessary, to go to jail for it. Despite the brothers’ best efforts to plead their case, the court predictably orders them jailed in what was expected to be a symbolic few weeks of incarceration.
Eight years later, they still languished in jail.
In those eight years, when the family bonds tightly together and mobilizes its resources to get their family out of jail, “Silver Dollar Road” springs back to vigorous life. When each frustrating attempt to get some justice for Melvin and Licurtis fails, it only spurs the family to try harder through phone calls, demonstrations, and media attention to get their story out.
However, just beneath the surface of the inspiring story of the Reels family is bubbling the latent racism of which Peck never loses sight. Even as we cheer on the brave heroes of Silver Dollar Road, Peck clarifies that the blatant racial prejudice that fuels their fight lingers on, one that must always be vigorously confronted, whether from society or one brave family. “Silver Dollar Road” is a story that can rightly evoke anger, but Peck tells it with such skill and empathy that it also becomes a welcome source of inspiration.