Haitian director Raoul Peck has made some formally daring feature films, but his documentary work has tended to be a bit more subdued, preferring to let the subject matter do the talking. Even still, Peck has successfully used the nonfiction form to resolutely bring radical history into the present. His 1991 documentary Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, and especially the recent James Baldwin profile I Am Not Your Negro (2016), displayed both rage and poetry, allowing the viewer to use their intellect to make the necessary connections between then and now.
By contrast, it’s unlikely someone could identify Silver Dollar Road as a Peck project without his name on it. It could be the demands of funders (this is an Amazon production), or it could be Peck’s sincere belief that this story of a North Carolina coastal family robbed of their land by legal chicanery requires no embellishment. And indeed, the saga of the Reels family is infuriating, and demonstrates the systemic racism — or let’s just call it white supremacy — that ensures that Black people, especially those of limited means, will be crushed by business interests and the judiciary with nary a second thought.
Still, Silver Dollar Road, which is based on a ProPublica article by Lizzie Presser, often feels like a film with conflicting impulses. It’s at its best when it uses historical footage, home movies, and first-person recollections to describe the Reels’ waterfront property as an alcove of freedom for Black people who faced harassment or worse if they tried to relax on white-controlled beaches. Peck is at his best when observing the extended family and their neighbors simply living life, fishing, praying, dining, and celebrating together.
The documentary takes an understandable turn when two of the Reels’ heirs, Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, are convicted of trespassing on their own property and incarcerated for just shy of eight years. At this point, Silver Dollar Road focuses on the men’s ordeal and the family’s struggle for justice. The courts show overt favoritism to the plaintiff, a shadowy entity called Adams Creek Associates, and numerous attorneys are strong-armed into dropping the Reels family’s case. (Eventually the entire North Carolina state bar seems to know the case is hopeless, but that doesn’t stop many of them from taking the family’s money.)
The problem is that Peck doesn’t seem to know how to make this innately dramatic story resonate as a piece of nonfiction cinema, apart from providing extensive interviews with the living heirs of the Reels family. Much of Silver Dollar Road consists of endless drone shots of the contested land, as well as animated chyrons of the family tree, making the film often feel like an earnest but clumsy PowerPoint presentation. And although Peck makes it clear that the Reels’ expropriation is hardly unusual — the courts, along with the Ku Klux Klan, made a habit of stealing the legal property of Southern Blacks — the film provides this context almost as a series of footnotes.
In short, Silver Dollar Road, like many contemporary documentaries, adds very little to the print journalism they are based on. In fact, the film has some frustrating gaps that could have been filled with additional investigation. The patriarch of the family, Elijah Reels, left the land to his son Mitchell. And while Mitchell had no will, the law stipulated that his heirs would receive the land. But in 1979, a brother of Mitchell’s named Shedrick Reels goes to court claiming he holds the deed and has sold it to the Adams Creek developers. Who was Shedrick Reels? How did he pull off this heist, and why did he stab his own family in the back? Or was Shedrick even involved? His “ownership” might have been a fabrication of the Adams Creek partners. Silver Dollar Road is a story of a revolting miscarriage of justice, as well as racism, that barely cloaks itself beneath the rule of law. But the larger story, the long history of the white establishment plundering Black wealth, is one Silver Dollar Road is not entirely equipped to tell.
DIRECTOR: Raoul Peck; CAST: —; DISTRIBUTOR: Amazon Studios; IN THEATERS: October 13; STREAMING: October 20; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 40 min.