SILVER DOLLAR ROAD (2023)
Release Date: 10/20/23 [Prime Video]
Studio: Amazon Studios.
"A Black family in North Carolina has been harassed for decades by land developers attempting to take their waterfront property."
OUR DOCUMENTARY REVIEW:
Home. It’s what all of us need, want and long for – and perhaps no one cherishes their home more than someone who is in danger of losing the only home they and their family have ever known.
Silver Dollar Road is a documentary that is heartbreaking, frustrating and yet also at times inspiring and heartwarming.
This film is a testament to the enduring inspiring hope, commitment and connection shared by a large African American family living in coastal North Carolina and facing insurmountable odds to fight for and hold onto their ancestral land. It’s also a damning condemnation of the white supremacy and anti-Black racism this country was built on and still systemically upholds.
Based on a 2019 ProPublica article by Lizzie Presser, this documentary by Academy-Award Nominee Raoul Peck follows the extended Reels family as they fight to protect their ancestor Elijah Reels’ land, where they were all born and raised. Two members of the family, brothers Melvin and LiCurtis, were jailed for eight years without ever committing a crime, simply because they were held in contempt of court for not being willing to remove their homes from the land that was stolen and sold out from under them.
The devastating documentary is beautifully crafted and fuses gorgeous new footage with old family movies, animations, illustrations and thoughtfully-shot interviews.
I found that this film did a great job exploring the humanity of the Reels family and their plight, but it left many questions unanswered. It’s true that racism and outdated, systemically anti-Black laws and loopholes are certainly to blame for the Reels losing part of their ancestral land and for Melvin and LiCurtis being put in jail for eight years for no good reason. However, it’s also a fact that one of the family’s own, Shedrick Reels, is the person most responsible.
Alas, the Shedrick Reels story is never explored in Silver Dollar Road. What would cause a man to turn against his siblings and family members, stealing and selling the very land that they loved and lived on, right out from beneath their feet? That’s the question I found myself asking, but since Shedrick Reels died in 2002 (I found his obituary when I hit Google hard after finishing the film), perhaps we’ll never know.
I wonder why this part of the story wasn’t told – is it because the family didn’t want to speak ill of the dead? Or could it be because a crime by one family member against the rest isn’t as dramatic a story as that of a family preyed upon by wealthy white developers and systems of racism? We can’t blame the whole thing on the wealthy white developers when a Reels family member is the one who turned on his family and sold their land out from under them.
At the very least, the surviving Reels heirs and family members are entitled to equal portions of whatever funds Shedrick Reels received for their land. In fact, maybe that’s why the documentary didn’t include any mention of him – perhaps the family is litigating that even now. I hope so. It won’t get their beautiful waterfront land back, but it will at least provide a settlement that could help them in some way.
Bottom line: everyone should watch this film, but especially white people who don’t know about the ongoing tragedy that is Black land loss and the devastatingly racist laws and systems that make it nearly impossible for heirs to hold onto their ancestral land.