Silver Dollar Road Review | Protecting a Family’s Past and Future

by Andrew Parker

A story of struggle told at the point where systemic racism and parasitic capitalism intersect, filmmaker Raoul Peck’s Silver Dollar Road is a metaphor for the fallacy of the American dream, and specifically how it applies differently for people of colour than it seems to for many white people. While some of the subject matter is unique to this story of a black family fighting to keep ahold of their ancestral land in the face of greedy developers, the greater issues at play in Silver Dollar Road reach further and expose an injustice that’s unfolding all over the world on a daily basis, and one that usually targets people too poor to fight the system bearing down upon them. The family profiled in Silver Dollar Road isn’t wealthy, but they have the heart and tenacity to fight until there’s nothing left, and while the results aren’t always inspiring, Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) is careful enough to make sure that all of it is meaningful.

The members of the Reels family have owned a piece of gorgeous, bucolic waterfront property at the end of a dead end street in Carteret County, North Carolina that has been passed down through several generations. The property located on Silver Dollar Road was an almost magical gathering place for the family and surrounding community. The land was sustainable, so they could do their own farming, they had a beach all their own, and it was a place that could serve as a refuge from the targeting white supremacists that were at the height of their power following the civil war. 

Since the 1970s, however, the family has been besieged by real estate developers looking to build chi-chi waterfront mansions and yacht marinas. An interfamily dispute in 1978 kicked off a series of events that have left those remaining on the land fighting to retain ownership. These issues reached a boiling point in 2004 when two members of the family – brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis – were served with eviction notices and ordered to abandon their homes. Melvin Davis and Licurtis refused, and they were subsequently sentenced to eight years in prison for ignoring the notice.

Outside of the greater history of black land ownership following the civil war that creates the bold margins for Peck’s film, there are two major threads of pain and inspiration that run throughout Silver Dollar Road. The first concerns nonagenarian matriarch Gertrude, her daughter Mamie Reels Ellison, and granddaughter Kim Duhon, who are on the frontlines of the battle to keep the property in the family. These are the strong black women who provide Peck with a lot of the footage, documentation, and receipts that flesh out not only the history of the land, but also the decades they have spent in court trying to fight the Adams Creek Associates, the development consortium that accuses the family of trespassing on their own land. They keep the fight going, despite the fact that most of the people still living in the area are now senior citizens looking to preserve this way of life – which extends to a lucrative, but equally vanishing opportunity for commercial, sustainable fishing – for future generations.

The other involves brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis, who endured their share of threats over the years – with the former even having his boat blown up at one point – prior to their arrest. In spite of proper paperwork, their form of civil disobedience was seen as a crime worthy of a punishment that most outsiders would deem unnecessarily harsh. 

These shared stories are both inspirational and purposefully exhausting. The family keeps fighting, even though it seems like they have little left to fight back with. They’re subject to constant prying, intimidation, countless lawsuits, and excessive taxation. It’s an immense financial burden that’s placed upon the Reels family, but also a mentally and physically draining ordeal. Being imprisoned comes with its own set of unfortunate circumstances and hardships, but being on the outside and dealing with different forms of bureaucratic challenges and pitfalls can be just as tiring and soul crushing. These narratives speak to the strength of the family under their specific set of circumstances, but also illustrate how land developers (almost always backed by powerful politicians and people of wealth and means) will go to great lengths to virtually torture people into giving up what rightfully belongs to them.

The strength of the family and their determination is wisely placed in the foreground by Peck, because there are some elements of Silver Dollar Road that don’t work nearly as well. The family beef that really kicks things into high gear isn’t brought up in any great detail, and it seems like everyone is reticent to talk about it, leaving a hole in the narrative that remains obvious. Similarly, the film ends on a discussion about larger issues that would’ve worked a lot better in the middle of Peck’s work than towards the conclusion because it ends up being a restatement of facts rather than a forwarding of what happens from this point onward. There’s also a lot of literal and metaphorical paperwork to sift through to make Silver Dollar Road as factually accurate as possible, and some of it is hard to decipher at such a brisk pace. (Then again, it does place the viewer in the mindset of a family that’s continually subjected to such a barrage of legal motions and threats.)

Peck does his best to get a handle on the material he has been given, but just like the Reels family has learned, it’s sometimes harder that it appears to fight the system. In spite of its sometimes necessarily messy construction, Silver Dollar Road remains a powerful call of justice and reform. Lives have already been forever changed, but there’s a hope that healing can happen if the voices of the family are listened to, and their story is heeded. It’s not just a family’s story of struggle, but a historical document that speaks to the larger plight of black farmers, landowners, and settlers (and by extension, all indigenous peoples who face similar marginalization). Silver Dollar Road depicts a way of life that is vanishing, the fight to keep it alive, and how in spite of it all, unity endures.

Silver Dollar Road is available to stream on Prime Video starting Friday, October 20, 2023.

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