At a film festival with plenty of big picture movies about race (Roger Ross Williams’ “Stamped From the Beginning” and Ava DuVernay’s “Origin” among them), Raoul Peck’s “Silver Dollar Road” is a specific and damning case study of one place, one family and one monumental case of injustice.
Peck, director of the Oscar-nominated James Baldwin doc “I Am Not Your Negro,” is attuned to exploring larger issues through the reverberations of a single incident, in this case the eight-year jail terms served by two Black men for remaining on the land that had been taken from them in North Carolina.
The film, which premiered on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, would be baffling, except that cases of racial injustice can and have been both inexplicable and predictable. It’s infuriating, to be sure, but Peck makes sure that the takeaway is not so much talking points about why this happened but an understanding of the human beings to which it happened.
The documentary, which counts Viola Davis among its executive producers, begins with a history lesson but soon moves to a birthday party. The history lesson starts with General Sherman asking Black leaders what they needed in the aftermath of the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people, and then ordering that 400,000 acres of former Confederate land be given to Blacks. (The order gave rise to the phrase “40 acres and a mule.”)
But over the course of the 20th century, as white supremacists launched a reign of terror against Black landowners, the film says that they lost 90% of the farmland they’d owned at the beginning of the century.
But one family, the Reels, retained much of the land that Elijah Reels bought in 1911 — 65 acres of land along Adams Creek in Carteret County, North Carolina. The birthday party depicted in “Silver Dollar Road” is a celebration for the 95th birthday for the clan’s matriarch, Gertrude Reels, who says that before her father died, he told her, “Whatever you do, don’t let the white man have my land.”
That land stretched along the road that gives the film its title, and contained three cemeteries and one of the few beaches where Blacks were allowed to swim during the Jim Crow era.
But in the 1970s, Mitchell Reels died without a will, which made the land “heirs’ property.” The designation is common in the South, but it can make property vulnerable to being taken away, a common practice to disenfranchise Black property owners.
At the end of that decade, Mitchell’s brother, Shedrick Reels, produced a deed (from New Jersey, not North Carolina) that said he owned 13 acres of prime waterfront land where Melvin and Licurtis Reels had been living. A court agreed with his claim under the Tarrens Act, a questionable piece of legislation that had been used to take land away from the rightful owners in the past. Shedrick then sold the land to the Adams Creek Associates developers, who sued the Reels family for trespassing on their land.
Melvin and Licurtus were adamant that they would not leave property they’d lived on for virtually their entire lives. “If they say we have to sign the rights away or go to jail, I’m going to jail,” Melvin said. So go to jail he did, sent there for civil contempt. And he and Licurtis stayed in jail for a couple of weeks shy of eight years, the longest-ever jail time for that violation. The day Melvin and Licurtis were sent to jail, their lawyer quit.
“It just defies logic that any of this constitutes justice,” says one lawyer and judge in the film, one of the few outside commentators that Peck uses. With a few explanatory titles but no narration, the director chooses to have the Reels family tell this story, particularly the members of the family who were sent to jail or victimized by the land grab.
The look of the film, meanwhile, backs in the rich, verdant land around Silver Dollar Road, underlining with every drone shot just how tragic the loss was. This is all set to a soundtrack of blues and gospel music — blues for the pain but also the grit, gospel for sorrow but also for healing. (“When my mother was really stressed out, she’d play her church albums,” says one of Gertrude’s daughters.)
For the most part, Peck follows the beats of a ProPublica and New Yorker story published in 2019. But by putting these people and this land onscreen, he takes a single case study and gives it a face and a heart.
“Silver Dollar Road” will be released in theaters on Oct. 13 and on Amazon Prime Video Oct. 20.
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