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CIFF 2023: Silver Dollar Road

October 12, 2023


written by: Raoul Peck
produced by: Raoul Peck, Blair Foster, Rémi Grellety & Hebert Peck
directed by: Raoul Peck
rated: not rated
runtime: 100 min.
U.S. release date: October 13, 2023 (limited) & October 20, 2023 (Prime Video)


It doesn’t take long to get to the heart of the subject of “Silver Dollar Road” and that’s when you realize why Oscar-nominated director Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”) was compelled to tell this frustrating true story. This story of injustice is a story that needs to be told. It’s more than just the story of a decades-old legal battle for land, but also a damning look (or reminder) at how Black property owners have been treated in the Jim Crow South since emancipation. It’s a documentary that’s different from the approach Peck has taken in the past, incorporating an effective albeit conventional approach with a compelling verité style.

The titular location can be found along a waterfront property in the central coast of North Carolina, one that has been passed down through generations in the Reels family. Peck and cinematographers Henry Adebonojo and Antonio Rossi glide over, winding rivers, dense pine trees and green fields, guiding us to the sprawling coastline of Carteret County, where Black land ownership has been under scrutiny since slavery. From the days after the Civil War to the racial-segregation laws in the later years of the Civil Rights movement, this area was home to the only beach to welcome black families. However, many Black families were forced out by violence and lynching, leaving their land and winding up in exile up North.

In fact, Black Americans have statistically lost about 80% of their property, even if it was considered heirs’ property. What does that mean? “Heirs’ property” refers to land that is jointly owned by descendants of a deceased person whose estate did not clear probate. The descendants, or heirs, have the right to use the property, but they do not have a clear or marketable title to the property, since the estate issues remain unresolved.



The Reels, like many others, were disproportionately affected by heirs’ property laws, which impacted racial and ethnic minorities, low-income and rural populations. Peck’s film focuses on how the Reels family has been in the process of securing their ancestors’ land and making Silver Dollar Road a safe haven for future generations. Using interviews with family members, home video footage, and archival photos, Peck paints a picture of Silver Dollar Road as a tranquil safe space for the Reels in New Bern, NC, where they could relax by the beach, dance at cookouts, and most importantly be free from the unjust scrutiny of the authorities and white folk.

In “Silver Dollar Road” we see Gertrude Reels (who turned 95 in 2021) reflect, stating that her daddy told her the day before he died, “Gertrude, I won’t be with y’all long. Whatever you do, don’t let the white man have my land.” That’s what happened to this specific property in Adams Creek, near Silver Dollar Road, when patriarch Elijah Reels lost the property due to back taxes in 1939. His son, Mitchell Reels (Gertrude’s father), purchased the property in 1944, but when he died in 1970 without a living will (because he didn’t trust the courts) the property then became the heirs of Mitchel Reels. Gertrude’s granddaughter, Kim Duhon, shares, “And that’s when all our legal problems started”. The family story is told from the perspective of Getrude’s sister, nephews, sons and grandchildren, as Peck’s camera captures them in their respective homes or as they tour the land together.

In 1978, Mitchell’s brother Shedrick intervenes with the deed from New Jersey and has it registered as a partial property that he owns, unbeknownst to the family. Not long after, there’s word that the property has been sold to someone else without the family’s knowledge. During that time, Gertrude (who was made administrator of the property) is put in charge of getting someone to represent the family to prove that the land does indeed belong to the heirs of Mitchell Reels, no Shedrick Reels. But, in March 1979, the court grants Shedrick legal owner of 13.25 acres of waterfront land, something that the family was never informed of.



That prime real estate land was then claimed by Adams Creek Associates, but it was also where brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels (Gertrude’s sons and grandsons to Mitchell Reels) lived. Peck introduces viewers to Melvin as he takes us through a walk in the marshy woods, describing who is buried where and the specific areas that belonged to his family. That’s followed by an introduction to Anita Earls, a Supreme Court Justice who served as lawyer for Melvin and Licurtis between 2006-2007, who states that the the brothers were being sued in 2013 by Adams Creek Associates, who claimed that the family was trespassing on their own land.

Melvin provided for his family by becoming a commercial fisherman right off the land, catching and selling fish, shrimp, and crabs. He would become the father and uncle that offered advice and kept things going. At a certain point, the area started to become popular with tourism and there was fear of white people moving in on the land. Lacurtis is described as a humble, hard-working guy whom “everybody loves”, someone who loves people and likes to have a good time.

Peck also introduces viewers to the current generation of Reels, Roderick Ellison (Melvin’s nephew) and Nate Ellison (Melvin’s grandnephew), who maintain commercial fishing in the area. We watch as Melvin rides along in the Ellison’s fishing boat, describing his own experience fishing in the same waters as Peck incorporates old footage of Black fisherman of the past in the area.

Life changes for the entire family occurred in 2002 when Adams Creek Associates file a trespass action against Melvin and Lucurtis. Peck shares the interaction between the court and the brothers. Two years later, the court rules that Melvin and Lecurtis must remove their homes (not just themselves, but their homes) and stop trespassing on the waterfront. When they refused, their property was vandalized and destroyed, and eventually Melvin (64) and Licurtis (53) wound up in prison in 2011, staying there for eight years. A family was disrupted and torn apart all due to land developers pushing them out of their land. It’s a wholly frustrating and infuriating situation.

“Silver Dollar Road” was inspired from a story written by Lizzie Presser which was co-published by ProPublica and The New Yorker and Peck concludes his film by sharing how this one family’s plight isn’t an isolated case. The following information can be read on screen: More than 1/3 of Black-owned land in the South is heirs’ property. Heirs’ property laws disproportionally affect racial and ethnic minorities, low-income and rural populations. The Reels family is in the process of securing their ancestors’ land and making Silver Dollar Road a safe haven for future generations.

After making its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and a couple other film festivals last month, “Silver Dollar Road” will receive a limited theatrical release by Amazon MGM Studios, and then it can be found on Prime Video on October 20th.




“Silver Dollar Road” will be screened at the 59th annual Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) on Friday, October 13 at AMC NewCity (Screen 6) at 5:00pm (CST) with director Raoul Peck in attendance for a post-screening discussion. Ticket info can be found here. 




RATING: ***1/2



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