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‘Silver Dollar Road’ chronicles one family’s struggle for land ownership — and justice

Six members of a family pose outdoors for a photo in a scene from the documentary "Silver Dollar Road."
The Reels family is at the heart of a land dispute in “Silver Dollar Road.”
( TIFF)
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Academy Award-nominated director Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”) didn’t originate the idea of “Silver Dollar Road,” the documentary that has created buzz since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Instead, when he was asked to produce the project, he found himself so in love with ProPublica journalist Lizzie Presser’s article and Presser’s meticulous research into one family’s struggle to retain land handed down for generations that he wanted to be involved as producer and as director.

“They were already working on a project that [would] be a scripted version and a documentary, so they asked me if I was willing to produce the documentary, and after analyzing the documents and reading a lot about it, knowing a little bit more about the family, I thought it was an incredible project. So my job was to make a film and not just another report. It was for me to make a story that can be seen several times. A story with emotion, with comedy and still be totally real, you know?”

Silver Dollar Road is a rural road facing the coastal waters in Carteret County, N.C. The documentary focuses on the Reels (siblings Mamie, Melvin and Licurtis) family’s fight to keep this choice waterfront land that has been in the family since Reconstruction. “Silver Dollar Road” sheds light on the often heartbreakingly frustrating, catastrophic results of heirs’ property (property left by a relative without a will or deed that doesn’t go through probate but keeps getting passed down generation to generation). In the case of the Reels, an uncle sold 13 coastal acres to a development company without the family’s knowledge or permission. Years later, the company came to claim it, and the family found itself in a long legal battle that included years of incarceration for Melvin and Licurtis for refusing to leave their home on the land.

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A man in a suit stands outdoors for a portrait.
Filmmaker Raoul Peck has a personal connection to his latest documentary about inherited land ownership in “Silver Dollar Road.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

For Peck, a native Haitian (and the country’s former minister of culture) who moved with his family to the African Congo, where his father was an ergonomist for the U.N., the saga was a familiar one. “I grew up in that rural setting,” he says. “My father had land in Haiti. I spent all my youth going on vacation to a place like Silver Dollar Road, except it was in the mountains and in Haiti. We would have picnics. It was not the sea, but it was the river. So land was at the center of my life all my life, my parents’ life. I work with the people there to make sure that we do our best to keep the land, because the same kinds of problems happen everywhere.”

He decided to tell the story primarily from the viewpoint of two women within the Reels family: matriarch Mamie and her niece Kim Renee Duhon. Peck says he didn’t want to focus too much on the legal aspect but instead take the viewer “inside” the family so that “we see them as real human beings, that we could have empathy and not make them tools of a story. Not only were they telling the story, but [the audience] had to have the humility to meet them, to feel them and to listen to them — their joy, their pain, their hopes. It was key to me to bring the audience to that feeling. Otherwise, when the drama happened, [the idea] is that they became objects, and I didn’t want that. The drama is just one moment in their lives. It doesn’t define them the same way enslavement doesn’t define who we are. We are first human beings.”

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“What unifies them,” he adds, “is the sacrifice of the two brothers. Eight years in prison — the whole family’s traumatized.”

The struggle for the coastline continues. New laws, Peck says, are limiting when and where fishermen — like the next generation’s Nate Ellison — can ply their trade. “He knows that he has to fight for his own future. You can see how, year after year, the system is pushing that population out, not only the Black one, also the poor white as well. It’s a total gentrification of the coast.”

Legally, the property “is still in the hands of the promoter who bought it, but the family is working with people, a lawyers organization, to clear out all the remaining titles so that the rest of the property will be in good standing.”

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The project took a year and a half, according to the director, starting when Peck traveled to North Carolina for the birthday of the family’s matriarch, 95-year-old Gertrude Reels. True to form, there were picnics — multiple-day picnics with relatives coming to visit from different states. With the archival legwork and even gaining the family’s trust already handled — by Presser, who by then was treated as family — Peck could concentrate on filmmaking. “Then it was about scheduling my shoot, and I could go, ‘OK, I want to go for 12 days first and shoot a specific aspect, spend time with the main characters I’d chosen.’ It’s also like writing a screenplay. I do both, so I approach it the same way.”

He also used archival footage. “We already had 90 hours of archive from the Lizzie Presser team. That’s why I included that at the end of the film, because that was invaluable, including the material shot by the family themselves, which was also rare in that they understood how special their story was and how it has to be told and known by everybody else.”

That sentiment was felt by Mamie at the Toronto screenings and others across the country. “She told me the first time I showed the film to the family before picture lock, but she repeated it in the Q&A in Toronto,” Peck recalls. “She said, ‘The best thing that could happen is that now I feel that I’m not alone in telling that story.’

“That she feels that the weight that was on her shoulder is gone. And if the film can do that, my job is done.”

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