To the unaided vision, Silver Dollar Road appears as a verdant stretch of road on a level coastal area, running south towards the shoreline in Beaufort, North Carolina. The area is abundant with the sounds of katydids and the water is brimming with shrimp – sufficient for multiple members of the Reels family to support themselves as fishermen, their boats scattered along the sandy coast. There are streams on both sides of the Reels family’s property, some wooded and others open, obtained by Mitchell Reels only one generation after being freed from slavery.
To the Reels family, the land is indispensable, precious, indisputable. As captured in decades’ worth of home video and photos assembled in Silver Dollar Road, documentarian Raoul Peck’s riveting and infuriating new film, the land was a Black community haven – a rare beachfront away from white surveillance and suspicion, a safe social hub, a locus for prosperity and security. Several generations of Reelses and their extended families grew up there, or vacationed there, or were buried there.
The land along Silver Dollar Road fulfilled a promise of Reconstruction, providing Black Americans with the opportunity for land ownership and the generational wealth that comes with it. The film, currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, begins with a quote from Rev Garrison Frazier, who spoke on behalf of 20 Black ministers to Union general William Tecumseh Sherman. He stated, “The best way for us to take care of ourselves is to have land, work it with our own labor.” Land was seen as a symbol of wealth and legitimacy, but it was eventually taken away over the course of several decades; as indicated by another title card, Black farmers lost 90% of their land during the 20th century.
In the early 2000s, the Reels family found themselves in a legal battle. Mitchell Reels, who had a distrust of financial institutions due to their historic discrimination against Black individuals, passed away in the 1970s without a will. As a result, his land was passed down as “heirs’ property,” a complicated legal concept that even legal professionals struggle to explain. This led to the land being passed down to relatives as an informal holding company. However, without the rest of the family’s knowledge, one of Mitchell’s brothers who had been absent for a long time sold his deed to developers. These developers saw potential in the land, specifically Silver Dollar Road, and were eager to turn it into waterfront lots for profit. Two of Mitchell’s descendants, brothers Melvin and Licurtis, refused to leave the land that they had called home for many years. Unfortunately, this led to them spending eight years in jail (not prison) starting in 2011, despite never being convicted of a crime.
The movie, inspired by Lizzie Presser’s 2019 investigation for ProPublica, simultaneously honors the Reels family’s strength and love for their home, sheds light on the destructive past of Black land seizure, depicts the community’s battle to liberate the Reels brothers, and delivers a thoughtful and scathing criticism of their imprisonment. Director Peck, known for his documentaries on racist colonialism and civil rights leader James Baldwin, stated, “The underlying theme of this story is essentially the entire history of the United States.”
According to Peck, the United States has a history of excluding the people who are essential to creating wealth from actually benefiting from that wealth. This began with the concept of private property and continued with the use of enslaved individuals to work the land. This pattern continued through events such as the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the promise of 40 acres and a mule. The underlying theme throughout all of this is land, which is at the heart of what defines the United States today. This is why, for Peck, the story of the Reels family is much more significant and far-reaching.
However, the film Silver Dollar Road has a strong focus on human values and follows the Reels family for a period of three years. Director RaMell Ross utilizes over 90 hours of footage captured by Mayeta Clark for the ProPublica article. The film features scenes of Gertrude Reels, the family matriarch, as she waits for her incarcerated sons to call. It also includes footage of a Reels nephew taking over the shrimping business, home videos of land speculators eyeing Melvin’s property, and Melvin’s boat mysteriously capsizing. The main focus is on Mamie Reels Ellison and her niece, Kim Duhon, who work to protect the family’s land and secure the release of the brothers through a complex legal process.
There are demonstrations and gatherings, holiday celebrations, and vintage pictures of Melvin’s seaside nightclub. Peck expressed, “I didn’t want the legal case to overshadow everything else. My goal was to focus on the family as a whole, highlighting their humanity rather than just their role as victims.”
Due to Presser’s research and the support of ProPublica, he was able to accomplish this, as they confirmed Peck’s retelling of a complex legal issue and also delved into his family and regional background. “I was able to express my personal perspective while having a strong foundation. This greatly impacted the film,” he expressed.
“I have a tendency to make biased decisions. I prioritize my family and disregard any opposing opinions,” he explained. “Throughout my life, I have always considered the other side. However, I felt it was necessary to focus on my family for once.” Occasionally, experts provide information on heirs’ property and the legal system in Carteret County, North Carolina. One lawyer expresses disbelief at the Reels brothers’ legal battle and time spent in jail, stating that it is not just. However, the majority of the film follows the Reels family and their community as they process their emotions of disbelief, frustration, exhaustion, and determination in real time. “This film is just the beginning for me, not the end,” Peck stated. “The family’s story and fight will continue, and the next generation will carry it on.”
The Reels brothers have returned to Silver Dollar Road, but the ongoing danger of Black families losing their land remains. A report from ProPublica reveals that 76% of African Americans do not have a will, which is more than double the percentage of white Americans. This puts their property at risk of being passed down to multiple heirs, leading to unstable arrangements. It is estimated that over a third of land owned by Black families in the southern United States is considered heirs’ property, totaling 3.5 million acres and valued at over $28 billion. This puts it at risk of being legally stolen.
Peck views the movie as both a call to action and a learning experience. He wishes for it to inspire viewers to reflect and engage in conversations with others, whether it be with family or friends. Peck urges people to educate themselves on history and current events, to understand the root causes of our current circumstances, and to recognize their own role in it.
The movie “Silver Dollar Road” can now be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.