‘Silver Dollar Road’ Review: Raoul Peck’s Documentary of Black Land Loss Is Too in the Weeds

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon releases the film in select theaters on Friday, October 13, and it will be available to stream on Prime Video on Saturday, October 21.

Captured in soaring overhead shots, Silver Dollar Road is hazy, lush, and calm, with tall pine trees towering over grassy fields on the way to the shoreline. Down on the ground, things are less tranquil. The road, which gives its name to Raoul Peck’s latest documentary, leads down to a sprawling beachfront property in North Carolina that’s been the site of a raging legal battle between the Reels, a Black family that owned the land for over a century, and the real estate developers trying to take it from them. Eventually, two Reels family members, Melvin Davis and Licurtus Reels, serve an eight-year prison sentence for failing to vacate their own homes.

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With “Silver Dollar Road,” Peck continues the examination of racial disenfranchisement in America that he masterfully tackled in “I Am Not Your Negro.” Here, instead of an epic exploration of these issues within the framework of James Baldwin’s bold, prescient commentary, Peck gives us an extreme close-up of how these issues continue to play out today, and one family’s struggle against the very forces Baldwin denounces.

The Reels family has lived along the water at Silver Dollar Road since they were given the land at the end of the Civil War. Through interviews with family members and archival photos, Peck paints a picture of Silver Dollar Road as an edenic space for the Reels, where they could relax by the beach, dance at the beachfront discotheque, and not be unjustly targeted by the law. The land has been passed down through the family without a will, in accordance with heirs’ laws, an easily exploited set of guidelines that fails to provide the legal title needed to prove ownership. Thanks to the instability of heirs’ laws, along with several obscure legal acts that frequently serve the interests of real estate companies, the Reels’ land was claimed by a distant family member, who then sold it to a developer for a fraction of its worth without the family even realizing it.

Based on a 2019 ProPublica piece by Lizzie Presser, Peck’s film seeks to give life to the issue of Black land loss, one of the most insidious ways that America has continued its tradition of racism. The obscure and deceptive legal strategies developers use to defraud Black families of their property are worthy of the spotlight — most people don’t even know about the laws and loopholes Peck and Presser discuss. But with “Silver Dollar Road,” Peck chose a narrative that’s too in the weeds — most of the important action takes place on paper or behind courtroom doors. While the source article spends much of its 7,500 words demystifying the legal workings of the Reels’ case and the obscure laws behind it, Peck’s film fails to clarify the matter. You’re more likely to get an understanding of heirs’ laws from Presser’s article, as the film barely mentions this central topic until the epilogue.

According to the ProPublica piece, “76% of African Americans do not have a will, more than twice the percentage of white Americans.” This included the original owner of the Reels’ land, who didn’t trust the legal system enough to write one. While we can certainly deduce why Black Americans are less likely to trust a system that’s exploited them for centuries, this issue isn’t explained or explored fully in the film, even though it’s so pivotal to the events it attempts to chart. Ultimately, Peck leaves us with scattered impressions of the Reels’ life and how the case affected the family instead of explaining the nuances of the case itself. This strategy fails to give audiences a clear sense of what’s at stake so they can invest fully in their story as it unfolds. “Silver Dollar Road” manages to serve as a loving portrait of the land, its history, and the people who live there, but Peck is too concerned with setting the scene, neglecting to get into the real reasons why Black land loss is so pervasive.

Told largely through talking head interviews with family members that play over a sentimental, ever-present piano score, the film certainly wants you to feel something. In the absence of much archival footage, elaborate animations of family trees and Licurtus and Melvin’s jail cell do their best to fill in the blanks. But without a real understanding of how developers got a hold of Silver Dollar Road, or why two of its residents sat in jail for eight years, the bulk of this footage feels void of any real pathos.

The film is at its best when it steps away from the talking heads and animations and allows its subjects to take the reins. Footage shot by one family member documents the lawyers from the real estate company harassing the Reels on their land. “Billy, don’t go down there,” Mamie Reels says to her brother as he attempts to confront them. “Wait, lemme go down with you so I can record it!” The instinct to document is captured in this candid moment, demonstrating how the Reels — and so many Black Americans — are forced to respond when they’re in any sort of confrontation with the law.

A film crew captures the moment Licurtus and Melvin are finally released from prison, a powerful scene of vindication and relief for the entire Reels family. A Memorial Day barbeque at Silver Dollar Road celebrates their homecoming, complete with stirring religious hymns performed by family members, and a spirited freestyle rap from the youngest Reels girls that boldly stakes claim to their land. These unembellished, celebratory musical moments give life to “Silver Dollar Road,” and capture the joy that has flourished here for decades. The Reels’ story, complete with these ebullient moments, deserves to be told. But it warrants so much more attention to detail, so that we can understand exactly what’s at stake, and how to keep it from happening again.

Grade: C+

“Silver Dollar Road” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in select theaters on Friday, October 13, and it will be available to stream on Prime Video starting Friday, October 20.

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