In the heart-wrenching documentary “Silver Dollar Road,” the esteemed director Raoul Peck deftly unravels the remarkable tale of two resolute women, Mamie Reels Ellison and her niece Kim Renee Duhon. Their extraordinary journey unfolds against the backdrop of an unwavering family’s struggle to cling to their ancestral land in the tranquil expanse of Carteret County, North Carolina. This profoundly affecting film traverses the realms of unyielding familial determination, the ruthless machinations of land grabs, and the unsettling biases deeply ingrained within the American legal system.
“Going to the water for me was always magical,” Ellison muses tenderly early in the film, casting a nostalgic gaze upon the pier and beach that grace one end of the family’s cherished 65-acre sanctuary. A montage of home movie snippets and frozen photographs, brimming with exuberant children splashing, carefree teenagers striking poses, and joyous adults basking in the serenity of the place, encapsulates the heartfelt warmth that this land has bestowed upon generations. Duhon, harking back to her Louisiana summers, reverently describes it as “a place of freedom.”
This overarching theme of freedom intertwines seamlessly with the larger narrative of how Ellison’s grandfather, Elijah Reels, came to be the steward of this vast expanse of land along Adams Creek. Raoul Peck adroitly interlaces this history with the broader context of land grants and the brutal dispossession that many communities have endured, masterfully conveyed through the film’s eloquent intertitles.
In a pivotal moment, the documentary invokes the historical context of General William Tecumseh Sherman, who, in a meeting with a group of Black pastors in South Carolina, inquired about the needs of the formerly enslaved. The succinct response was “land.” In January 1865, Sherman issued Order 15, a groundbreaking initiative aimed at setting aside 400,000 acres of Confederate land for those who had suffered the indignities of slavery. This critical juncture in history underlines the paramount importance of land ownership as a means of empowerment and security. (This significant moment is also highlighted in Jon-Sesrie Goff’s ruminative documentary “After Sherman,” which also touches on the vulnerabilities of land deemed “heirs’ property.”)
“Silver Dollar Road” draws its inspiration from the profoundly moving 2019 ProPublica article penned by Lizzie Presser, co-published by The New Yorker. The article chronicled the herculean efforts of the tightly-knit Reels family, spanning decades, as they grappled with a relentless battle to reclaim 13 acres of waterfront property that had been unjustly seized from them in the tumultuous year of 1979. The dying words of Elijah’s son Mitchell, a poignant plea to his daughter Gertrude, the family’s unyielding matriarch, loom large throughout the narrative: “Whatever you do, don’t let the white man have my land.” The weight of this directive is not lost on anyone, as Gertrude’s sons, Licurtis Reels and Melvin Davis, both held homes on the coveted waterfront parcel. Davis also operated his shrimping business from the family pier, where Silver Dollar Road gracefully met its watery terminus. It was more than just a piece of land; it was a repository of cherished memories, even boasting a modest night club by the name of Fantasy Island.
However, the family’s idyllic tale takes a bitter twist when a family member, exploiting a legal loophole, orchestrates the sale of the land to an unscrupulous developer. This pivotal moment in the narrative underscores the myriad reasons why Black families might harbor deep-seated mistrust in a bureaucracy and legal system that has often failed to safeguard their interests. Nevertheless, Mamie Reels Ellison and her indomitable family take resolute steps to secure the deed to their land, believing they have rectified the situation. When they discover that they remain entangled in a complex web of legal entanglements, they respond with unwavering determination.
The documentary paints a vivid portrait of Melvin and Licurtis, who emerge as central figures in Mamie and Kim’s accounts. Unbowed by court orders and steadfastly refusing to vacate their homes, they find themselves incarcerated for civil contempt in 2011.
As the family’s protracted legal battles escalate, Melvin and Licurtis languish in confinement, prompting viewers to question, “How long have they been in jail?” The documentary’s portrayal makes it increasingly facile to regard them as political prisoners. At a certain juncture, a fervent young activist steps onto the stage, galvanizing support for their cause. One of the documentary’s most graceful moments utilizes vibrant animation to encapsulate the brothers’ experiences, with branches of the family tree sprouting within the confines of their austere jail cells. It was not until 2019 that the brothers would finally breathe the sweet air of freedom once again.
Bolstered by the trials and tribulations of Melvin and Licurtis, the ProPublica investigative piece embarked on an exhaustive exploration of the data underpinning the harrowing loss of land and the subsequent erosion of economic opportunities among African Americans, especially in the Southern United States. Raoul Peck seamlessly weaves this data, along with the evocative footage and photographs captured by Wayne Lawrence, which accompanied the original article, into his film, crafting a powerful, yet profoundly compassionate, documentary.
Peck understands that mere statistics and images are not enough; he recognizes the paramount importance of lending voices to the voiceless. In his prior work, “I Am Not Your Negro,” he harnessed the eloquent words and cadence of James Baldwin to articulate his message. In “Silver Dollar Road,” the filmmaker engages in intimate interviews with Mamie and Kim, delving into the profound significance of a place—how it nurtures a sense of self, family, community, and belonging.
For many, the Reels’ pier and beach held a unique, almost sacred, significance. “It was a place to feel safe,” asserts more than one interviewee, reminiscing about their time there. Mamie poignantly articulates this sentiment, saying, “It was the one place you could go and not worry about being targeted by the law. You didn’t have to feel like you were being harassed.”
“Silver Dollar Road” is not confined to evoking a sense that “they” (representing a wide array of people and systems) will perpetually unearth fresh reasons to incarcerate Black men; it offers a microcosm of the issues that have become increasingly endemic to property ownership in the United States. The Reels family’s narrative mirrors the rural variant of gentrification, where families of modest means find themselves forcibly ousted from homes they have cherished for generations, all in the wake of opportunistic development.
Peck subtly, and perhaps serendipitously, forges a link between the challenges faced by the Reels family and the struggles of rural Black communities with the original sin of mass dispossession in American history. As Mamie drives Gertrude to the courthouse, a snippet of a news report about the National Resource Conservation Service and tribal lands plays on their car radio, drawing a poignant parallel between past injustices and present-day struggles.