May 23, 2024

In “Silver Dollar Road,” documentarian Raoul Peck foregrounds two resolute women, Mamie Reels Ellison and Kim Renee Duhon — the heir of a deceased landowner and her niece — to tell a story of familial grit, land grabs and the failings, if not the outright biases, of the courts.

“Going to the water for me was always magical,” Ellison says early in the film, reminiscing about the pier and beach at one end of the family’s 65 acres in Carteret County, N.C. A montage of home movie footage and photo stills of children splashing, teens striking poses and adults having a fine time captures the warmth of the place. It was, says Duhon, recalling her summertime visits from Louisiana, “a place of freedom.”

Freedom figures into the story of how Ellison’s grandfather, Elijah Reels, came to own so much land off Adams Creek. And Peck makes effective use of the broader history of land grants as well as dispossession from that land in the film’s handsome intertitles.

At a meeting with a group of Black pastors in South Carolina, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman asked them what the formerly enslaved might require. Land was the short answer. In January 1865, he signed Order 15, intended to set aside 400,000 acres of Confederate land for the formerly enslaved. (This significant moment is also highlighted in Jon-Sesrie Goff’s ruminative documentary “After Sherman,” which also touches on the vulnerabilities of land deemed “heirs’ property.”)

“Silver Dollar Road” is based on the 2019 ProPublica article by Lizzie Presser (co-published by the New Yorker magazine), about the decades-long efforts of this tight-knit Black family to fight for 13 acres of waterfront property taken from them in 1979. Days before dying, Elijah’s son Mitchell told daughter Gertrude, the family matriarch, “Whatever you do, don’t let the white man have my land.” The nonagenarian’s sons Licurtis Reels and Melvin Davis had homes on that waterfront parcel. Davis also ran his shrimping business from the family pier where Silver Dollar Road ends. He had a little night club called Fantasy Island.

After a family member exploited a legal loophole and sold the land to a developer, it becomes clear the many reasons why Black families might not trust a bureaucracy and legal system that routinely hasn’t served their interests. Even so, Mamie knew this, and the family took steps to secure the deed to the land in the courts. They thought they were square. When they discovered they weren’t, they acted.

Melvin and Licurtis are often the focus of Mamie and Kim’s accounts. After both men refused to leave their homes, defying trespassing orders while the family continued to press their case, they were jailed for civil contempt in 2011.

As the family’s legal battles intensify, the two remain in jail, and a viewer is right to wonder: “Wait, how long have they been in jail?” It becomes increasingly easy to think of Melvin and Licurtis as political prisoners, and at some point, a young activist begins to rally people to their cause. (One of the film’s most elegant gestures uses vivid animation to capture the brothers’ experiences, with branches of the family tree sprouting in the gray jail cells and enveloping them.) The brothers were released in 2019.

Spring boarding from Melvin and Licurtis’s travails, the ProPublica investigative piece did a deep dive into the data behind the dramatic loss of land (and therefore opportunity for durable wealth) that African Americans, especially in the South, have experienced since Reconstruction. Peck has incorporated some of that data as well as footage and the photos (by Wayne Lawrence) that accompanied the piece in his riling — but not without joy — documentary.

But Peck also knows that voices must be heard. His last film, “I Am Not Your Negro,” rode on the words of James Baldwin but also the author’s incisive cadence. And the filmmaker brings that awareness to interviews with Mamie and Kim that delve into the meaning of a place, how it feeds a sense of self, of family, community and belonging.

“It was a place to feel safe,” more than one interviewee says of their time on the Reels’ pier and beach. Mamie makes more explicit that note of vulnerability. “It was the one place you could go and not worry about being targeted by the law,” she says. “You didn’t have to feel like you were being harassed.”

In addition to provoking a feeling that “they” (and that covers a wide swath of people and systems) will find fresh reasons to incarcerate Black men, “Silver Dollar Road” provides a microcosm of the issues increasingly endemic to property ownership in the U.S. The story of the Reels and Silver Dollar Road offers the rural version of gentrification, in which families of modest means are priced out of their longtime homes and communities by unfettered, opportunistic development. The nearby summer McMansions and anchored yachts of Adams Creek will resonate with people living near water but also in mountain towns.

Peck subtly (if too serendipitously) links the challenges of the Reels and rural Blacks to the nation’s original act of mass dispossession. As Mamie drives Gertrude to the courthouse a snatch of a news report about the National Resource Conservation Service and tribal lands plays on their car radio.

At the film’s start, a camera glides over soul-beckoning intercoastal marshes, the Neuse River and Adams Creek tributary on the way to Gertrude Reels’ home. A loamy, acapella Ervin Webb’s “I’m Going Home” accompanies the images, underscoring the deeply personal and undeniably communal tug of a place for a family but also for people. “I’m going home, oh yes…I’m going home…”

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