Land grabs, the search for justice and remembrance in “SILVER DOLLAR ROAD”

Last Updated: October 13, 2023By Tags: ,

In the last century, more than ninety percent of Black farmers lost their property, often in schemes that dispossessed them of decades or even centuries of ties to their land. Greed, as it often does, plays a part, especially when backed by a corporate machine intent on seizing property for development.

Just one such example of land grabbing is documented in the new film “Silver Dollar Road” from Academy Award nominee Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”). Peck follows the Reels family of North Carolina (featured image), fighting a years-long attempt by unscrupulous developers to take their waterfront land. Viola Davis serves as an executive producer.

The Haitian-born Peck says that, even a century and a half after slavery ended, this curtailing of the basic rights of African Americans represents a secondary calamity for the descendants of the enslaved.

“Even laws [passed] to deal with that kind of problematic situation were in fact used by…powerful people in small communities to basically steal people’s land,” he said. “There is no other word to use.”

“Silver Dollar Road” follows the Reels family over its many tribulations fighting back against such potential seizure. We meet the strong matriarch Mamie Reels Ellison, her niece Kim Renee Duhon, as well as brothers Melvis and Licurtis, who were imprisoned for the better part of a decade for civil contempt for refusing to leave their own property—a rather creative use of the law to lock the brothers away.

The documentary sprang from a 2019 ProPublica article by Lizzie Presser about the family, which Peck used as the springboard for his documentary. ProPublica and Amazon actually approached him about turning it into a film, and Peck decided to direct it himself rather than hand off the artistic reins.

“I understood the matter, and the family was an incredible group of people when I met them,” he said. “I saw exactly what the movie could be.”

His vision required the filmmaker to not only work in North Carolina but to effectively become a local. Peck said it was key to gain the trust of the Reels family rather than be viewed as yet another outsider intent on taking advantage of them.

“You have to be there in every moment with the family life to catch those moments,” he said, adding that the Reelses even provided him with their own home videos to use in his product. “I’m not a journalist. I need to understand the people I’m working with or making a film on,” he said. “I have to gain their trust, and that requires time.”

Peck still keeps in touch with the Reels family, including Melvin and Licurtis, the brothers who spent eight years in prison unjustly during the ongoing ordeal. The trauma of both the corporation trying to take their land away, as well as their incarceration, continues to play on their minds, the filmmaker shared, adding that, late in “Silver Dollar Road,” there is a shot of Licurtis in tears saying, “I know why I’m crying.”

“I don’t think they will ever recuperate, but the only thing we can do is make sure their story is told and [it is] recognized that wrong has been done to them,” Peck said. This will help the brothers not only in their own emotional recovery but hopefully hold on to their land as well. It is key that the film engender empathy so that people might “show them the love that we can, so that to make them feel that they are not alone anymore,” the director said.

The filmmaker arranged a special screening for the Reels family while he was still editing his film. He described that event as highly emotional for the family. They thanked Peck for his work on their behalf.

“It was a long, long ride in which they felt really isolated and alone. Now to see it on the big screen…satisfied them fully,” he said. “It was an incredible moment.”

Near the end of “Silver Dollar Road,” Mamie Reels Ellison, the family matriarch, admits to being not precisely optimistic. It has been decades since Dr. King’s marches, she muses, and yet the system continues to be stacked against people of color, particularly poor people of color. However, Peck maintains there is reason to hope.

“The future will be whatever we choose to make of it. And the film shows how those two women in particular, Mamie and Kim, they fight,” he said. “They have no choice but to fight. And to fight that power, it’s difficult. It’s going to be difficult.”

Peck advises people who want to help to firstly know these stories, whether told by documentaries such as “Silver Dollar Road” or otherwise.

“I think if you ask many Americnas, I think each one has some sort of land-related dramatic story,” he said.

Peck also stated that the problem of stealing family land is a color-blind issue: It happens as much to White families, too. The common factor in all such stories is poverty.

“It’s just incredible that this has not been more of news and on the front pages,” Raoul Peck said. “I hope it [becomes] more central.”

“Silver Dollar Road” will be released on Amazon Prime on October 20th.

Raoul Peck

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