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Toronto International Film Festival

‘Silver Dollar Road’ shows how Black land is repeatedly – and legally – stolen

Documentarian Raoul Peck profiles a Black North Carolina family and the iron will it took to hang on to their property

TORONTO — Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has a knack for making unconventional documentaries that pull no punches.

He expands the formal boundaries of documentary film to convey rich narratives that grab viewers and don’t let go, with a specialty in telling the history that explains the continuing effects of colonialism, the slave trade, and capitalism. 

Peck’s latest documentary, Silver Dollar Road, currently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, is somewhat of a stylistic departure. It’s much more reliant on kitchen table and living room interviews with its subjects, as opposed to the studied lyricism of I Am Not Your Negro (2016), built around the words of writer James Baldwin, or the potent melding of narrative and documentary styles in the multipart Exterminate All the Brutes (2021) about the genocide that accompanied European colonialism. The title, Silver Dollar Road, refers to the long stretch of blacktop that extends through a Black beach and fishing community in North Carolina that arose during and after Reconstruction. Back when public beaches were segregated, the waterfront of Silver Dollar Road was the only beach in Carteret County that Black people were allowed to use.

The film tells the story of the Reels family and how two members of that family, Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, became hostages of a good ole boy system that jailed them on a charge of civil contempt for eight years for refusing to leave their land or sign anything that relinquished their right to it. This was land that Melvin, Licurtis and the rest of the Reels had occupied for the whole of their lives until a group of white developers attempted to seize it. Silver Dollar Road reveals the mundane and ubiquitous nature of de facto apartheid that persists in jurisdictions all across the South. It’s the reality of knowing that a white stranger can make your life hell and drain you of resources you don’t have and “legally” grab your land, turning legal battles into yearslong wars of financial attrition. Black folks in Carteret County know they’re unprotected. It’s why there’s such distrust of courts and why so few Black rural landowners leave wills.

In the film, white chalk graphics superimposed over images of the Silver Dollar Road community provide helpful cartographic orientation. Peck employs oil chalk illustrations to chart the Reels family line from the antebellum period, and fill in where video images cannot. For instance, they accompany the words of Melvin and Licurtis as they describe being held in jail while their family attempted to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and find attorneys who would represent them. In a small town like Beaufort, it was not difficult to discourage the entire white legal establishment from assisting the Reels, leaving them scrambling for representation.

Perhaps the most powerful oil chalks are the ones that document the toll this nearly decade-long fight took on the bodies of Melvin and Licurtis, demonstrated by the sped-up weathering of their faces.

Licurtis Reels (left) and Melvin Davis (right) were jailed for eight years for refusing to leave their land.

Amazon Studios

This is a familiar battle, not just in North Carolina, but throughout the former Confederacy — along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia where enslaved Africans perfected rice cultivation and throughout the rich delta farmland of Mississippi. Land theft is a common motif, aided in rural localities where a few legal authorities, say a judge, a sheriff, and a few attorneys looking for “heirs’ property” (land passed down to the next generation without a will) are able to rule by fiat and call it law. That’s how Melvin and Licurtis were incarcerated for nine years, after being convicted of civil contempt for “trespassing” on their own land. It’s not just Native Americans who want their #LandBack. Black people do, too. Land theft holds such an enormous power over the shape of Black life and local politics that it’s frequently a theme in contemporary television set in the South, such as Queen Sugar and P-Valley.

ProPublica reporter Lizzie Presser explains in the 2019 story upon which Silver Dollar Road is based:

“Heirs’ property is estimated to make up more than a third of Southern black-owned land — 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion. These landowners are vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. Black families watch as their land is auctioned on courthouse steps or forced into a sale against their will.

“Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. This problem is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap; the median wealth among black families is about a tenth that of white families.”

In part because of Presser’s thorough investigatory work, Peck is able to spare his audience from a briar patch of legal tedium. Law such as the Torrens Act (the statute that was used to claim the Reels’ land), and partition action (splitting up family land by surreptitiously purchasing shares of it from dispersed and often financially distressed heirs) are notoriously counterintuitive, and often applied in ways that appear subjective.

Peck’s lens is never filtered through pity or condescension. He shows that multigenerational intelligence and skill come in a variety of packages, whether it be the expertise of Black commercial fishermen in the calm waters of Beaufort, or matriarch Gertrude Reels’ pleas to her son when white developers, emboldened by the presence of the county sheriff, engage in a campaign of surveilling, harassing, and intimidating the Reels. While the developers have the might of the state to advance their interests, the Reels must counter with the cellphone and video cameras they use to document the harassment, and Gertrude’s knowledge of how to pick her battles.

We come to understand how the family persisted in keeping the land their ancestor first acquired in the aftermath of the Civil War. Peck follows Licurtis as he traipses through Reels land, giving a tour of his own history, uncovering the headstones of ancestors that remain in overgrown forest. He traces a history of fellowship and community that illustrates how the Reels used the land and waterways to become economically self-sufficient but never legally secure.

As the Reels dug in and kept fighting to both free Licurtis and Melvin and get their land back, the war moved to another front: the wetlands the Reels used to fish, shrimp, and crab to make their living, and a white-owned fish house that forced Black fishermen to accept prices for their catch that would keep them impoverished.

There’s no patronizing patina of educated know-betterism that often colors how stories of Black land dispossession are told. What’s evident, instead, is Peck’s respect for the Reels and their knowledge of their land and history. It’s refreshing to see work that doesn’t have to overcome the assumption that country Black people must be stupid or mistaken in their assessment that white supremacy and a legal system that favors developers are directly responsible for land theft. The Reels may not hold advanced degrees, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know exactly what’s what.

This sort of naked racism can sound like fiction, with maneuvers that leave previously ignorant viewers gobsmacked and gasping, how can they do this? How is this legal? It’s important to remember that in many dark corners of the American South, the Confederate project never ended and Jim Crow never died. It’s still the law.

Liner Notes

Silver Dollar Road is in theaters Oct. 13 and available to stream on Amazon Prime Oct. 20.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.