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Silver Dollar Road

“Silver Dollar Road” is stunning not just in subject matter, but because it has director Raoul Peck veering from his usual style. His typical interest in colonialist historiography—through music, art, mass media, and scholarly research—formed a clear-eyed interrogation of the world’s racist reality in “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Exterminate All the Brutes.” But “Silver Dollar Road” offers a different, conventional approach to a fuzzy story that, to an outsider, might appear up for debate.  

Peck's latest concerns the Reels family, Black residents of a North Carolina waterfront area known as Silver Dollar Road. The present-day Reels can trace their kin’s history in the area back to slavery when their ancestors settled on the swampy, less desirable parts of the land to live their freedom. By the 1970s, their patriarch, Elijah Reels, passed away. Though the family believed they had a claim on the land, another relative, Uncle Sherrick, declared through “adverse possession”—showing ownership by demonstrating a prolonged occupation of the land—his legal right to the prime seashore. Once he won his case, he sold his share to a development company known as Adams Creek Associates. Ever since then, the Reels have been locked in a multi-decade battle to reclaim what rightfully belongs to them against the might of shady developers. 

Inspired by the ProPublica/New Yorker article by Lizzie Presser, Peck parses the historically racist real estate laws of America, the tyrannical wielding of the justice system against Black folk, and the feeling of when the land becomes you and you become bound to the land. “Silver Dollar Road” is a celebration, an elegy, and a profound recording of a frustrating historical wrong. 

"Silver Dollar Road" derives its power from family; throughout the documentary, Peck graphically maintains a family tree of the Reels. The act seems simple but is devastatingly effective. In Antebellum America, the primary tool for weakening arriving African families was to separate them, scattering their shared history and oral traditions across the South. But the Reels, through the town’s three graveyards, have a physical marker of their time in the area. Their oldest living root is the 95-year-old Gertrude Reels, and this film opens with her birthday celebration. She’s been fighting the longest to win back the seaside and remembers the bustling, joyous, freeing life it once offered.

Her daughter Mamie Ellison also remembers the tranquil cove, describing Silver Dollar Road as innocent, magical, and safe. Warm, nostalgic photographs of barbecues, parties, kids swimming, and adults laughing recall the idyllic corners of the region’s past. Peck also meets with other family members, giving them the voice to state their case as he settles his lens on Gertrude’s sons Melvin and Licurtis. Both men had homes on the disputed land and, after decades of battles, were served eviction notices. Rather than leave, they were arrested for trespassing. What’s usually a minimal offense became a multi-year sentence for them. 

Through their harrowing story, “Silver Dollar Road” mirrors Garrett Bradley’s “Time,” another film about the crushing toll the justice system places primarily on Black folk. With each passing year of their detainment, the heartache accompanying missed Christmases and stolen days grows bigger. 

In their interviews, the family does not necessarily give the case's specific “legal” facts. They present their evidence through an oral history that runs against the legalese used to ensnare them. Likewise, one of their early attorneys also struggles to explain how the law is specifically applied against the Reels. Sometimes, you wish there was an expert who could guide you through the minutiae of the legalese. The justice system has always been stacked against Black people; there is no doubt about that. But it would still be good to learn the exact "how" even if we already know the "why" (racism). 

But the Reels aren't the only Black family fighting for their homeland. For the last hundred years or so, 90% of Black Americans have lost their farmland to a host of white folks, spanning every economic strata. Peck juxtaposes Silver Dollar Road to the history attached to other historically white areas just up the river; the Black people of the region had to create their own beach because segregation would not let them visit others. 

No footage is more powerful, however, than Gertrude’s cellphone video of white developers coming onto her relative’s land. The footage is shaky, barely in focus, and mostly visually incomprehensible. And yet, that aesthetic obscurity coincides perfectly with the muddied trials that have accompanied the family’s plight. No one has to call anyone racist without the viewer inherently knowing how it’s the root cause of this family’s troubles. That does, nevertheless, occur when Gertrude loudly proclaims these invading white people as what they are: Pilagers carrying out a tradition of stripping away Black land for white gain. It’s a commanding moment only matched by the film’s final half-hour.

Peck switches away from the talking head format to vérité filmmaking: He records this family and these people in their community, their songs, their celebrations, their joy, and tenacity. While this documentary doesn’t rise to the level of his masterwork “Exterminate All the Brutes,” the pain and anger, resolve, and courage that Peck captures in “Silver Dollar Road” make it a complex, intense document of the persistence of Black existence in a world hell-bent on erasure. 

This review was filed from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. "Silver Dollar Road" will be available in limited theaters on October 13th and available on Prime Video on October 20th. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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Film Credits

Silver Dollar Road movie poster

Silver Dollar Road (2023)

Rated PG

100 minutes

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