Raoul Peck’s ‘Silver Dollar Road’ chronicles a Black family’s battle to hold onto their land

October 12, 2023  -TORONTO (AP) — The filmmaker Raoul Peck was sitting in a Toronto hotel lobby talking to a reporter when Barry Jenkins beelined over to embrace him.

The two know each other, though it had been years since they saw one another. They also share a mutual affection for James Baldwin. Peck made the incisive, incendiary Oscar-nominated 2017 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” Jenkins, following his “Moonlight,” made the 2018 Baldwin adaptation “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

“Anytime you make work,” Jenkins told Peck, “I will see it.”

The latest from Peck is “Silver Dollar Road,” which opens in theaters Friday and streams Dec. 19 on Prime Video. In it, the Haitian-born filmmaker of “Lumumba,” “Sometimes in April” and some of the most thoughtful, prodding essay-film documentaries, chronicles the story of the Reels family in North Carolina.

For generations, the Reels have owned and lived on 65 waterfront acres along Adams Creek in Carteret County. The land, known as Silver Dollar Road, has been in the family since the days of Reconstruction, when their ancestors were freed from slavery. Elijah Reels officially took ownership in 1911, but when he died without a will, the land became what’s called heirs’ property, with ownership shared among a large group of Reels descendants.

This image released by Amazon shows Licurtis Reels, left, and Melvin Davis from the documentary, “Silver Dollar Road." (Wayne Lawrence/Amazon via AP)

ront fell into the hands of developers. Licurtis Reels and Melvin Davis found themselves accused of trespassing on the land they grew up on. After extensive legal battles, the two were jailed for eight years for refusing to obey a court order to stay off the land.

In Peck’s hands, the film stays close to the Reels’ experience and to the land; images of vines that wrap the family tree seem to grow out of the forests of Silver Dollar Road. The story is specific but reverberates with a much larger history of Black landownership and exploitation. Between 1910 and 1997, Black Americans are estimated to have lost 90% of their farmland, with the heirs’ property system often playing a role.

But the 70-year-old Peck sees his kind of documentary filmmaking as growing obsolete. Streaming platforms, where documentaries have proliferated, have led to increasingly formulaic approaches to nonfiction filmmaking, he says.

“We are in format more and more. Some companies are using algorithms for documentaries,” says Peck. “The whole filming is being transformed almost as we speak. I almost think it’s too late for the kind of documentary I make.”

“It’s not impossible,” he adds. “But the mainstream, they’re going to a place that I think is not that interesting. So I have to fight against all that.”

Peck, who was Haiti’s Minister of Culture from 1996 to 1997, has long approached cinema through political and historical lenses. His films, personal and passionate, rigorously engage with stories of injustice and atrocity that often go unexamined in popular culture. His four-part 2021 HBO documentary “Exterminate All the Brutes” connects the enslavement of Africans with the genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America, along with other historical connections.

“I came to filmmaking out of politics,” Peck says. “I grew up around liberation movements. I went to Berlin when I was 17. I grew up in a collective. And my country was a dictatorship until 1986. Cinema was a way of expression or another way to fight. All the films I’ve made could have been easier films, they could have been comedies. But I knew I had to fight my own way. What I did was coherent. There was no ‘Scary Movie 2’ somewhere.”

“Silver Dollar Road,” which is based on a 2019 ProPublica article by Lizzie Presser, focuses primarily on Mamie Reels Ellison and Kim Renee Duhon, two women who have spent decades working to protect their ancestral home.

“I wanted to put the family at the center and not the drama. The drama happened to a family that could be yours, it could be mine,” says Peck. “The usual format would have asked me to let the audience know from the get-go that they’re victims. Then you lose. There’s no way you can recover.”

Instead, any villain in “Silver Dollar Road” is faceless. There is the sense of how identity is bound up in home, and the feeling of invasion when forces gather to dispossess the Reels of their land.

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