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TIFF23: Silver Dollar Road Is an Angry Fight for Land

Courtesy of TIFF

“Going to the water for me was magical,” says Mamie Ellison. Her family grew up on Silver Dollar Road, a beautiful stretch of waterfront in North Carolina. It’s a place that’s special and sacred to Mamie and her family. They’ve lived there since 1911, when plots of land were given to enslaved Black people after the Civil War. Silver Dollar Road is located on Adams Creek in Carteret County, North Carolina. While the land and the family are filled with love, real estate developers and violent White supremacist neighbors have been trying to run the Reels off their property. Academy Award-nominated director Raoul Peck helms this documentary that shares the name of the stretch of land that belongs to the Reels family. Peck shows the audience Black resilience in the face of systemic oppression through the intimate lens of the Reels family.

A sense of place and belonging is essential to humans. To have a community or a family is to have a support system that allows a person to thrive and grow. Silver Dollar Road’s Reels family have built themselves a place of love. All of the members of the family featured in the film talk about the magic of the land. They share joyful memories of childhood, especially running to the beach where there always seemed to be something exciting happening. The land provided a place for people to commune, but it also allowed the Reels to become self-sufficient. They could farm and fish for themselves as well as sell food at the local market. The land of Silver Dollar Road was originally given to Black people after the Civil War because it was thought to be valueless. The land is a swamp, but the Reels made it profitable.

Of course, transferring land ownership to Black Americans didn’t solve anything. Violence at the hands of White supremacists ran many Black Americans out of the South over the course of the 20th century. Silver Dollar Road estimates that Black Americans lost 90% of their farmland, and without land it’s hard to build generational wealth. The Reels are some of the 10% who stayed, but their life hasn’t been without its own challenges. The original owner of Silver Dollar Road, Elijah Reels, lost the property in the 1930s because he owed back taxes, but his son, Mitchell, was able to purchase it again. In the 1970s, real estate developers realized the gold mine that the Reels were sitting on and tried to force them out. Now, Gertrude, the family’s matriarch, is in her 90s and the fight to keep her land is still not over. Playing at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, Silver Dollar Road chronicles the family’s fight against the American legal system to stay in the place they call home.

The Reels family poses for a photo
Courtesy of TIFF

The story of Silver Dollar Road is frustrating and shows how deeply seated White supremacy is in the United States. It’s not just a social issue. The effects of White supremacy are insidious and exist within legal and government spaces as well as day to day life. Racism is baked into the very identity of the United States, and the Reels’ fight to keep their home is a manifestation of decisions made hundreds of years ago. They are not alone. Eminent domain primarily affects minority groups. It’s yet another way the United States legal system has been abused to limit Black land ownership.

Silver Dollar Road’s decision to focus its story on the family of the Reels allows audiences to put a face to a phenomenon that is far larger than this one North Carolina family. The Reels are warm and charming, and they’re fantastic storytellers who unfortunately have to tell their own painful life experiences. This smaller focus and the decision to stay out of the weeds of the intricacies of the court case allows Silver Dollar Road to feel approachable. It’s not a documentary that overwhelms a viewer with jargon or complex legal terminology, but comes to this issue with emotion and heart at the forefront. The Reels family probably feels a little like your own.

It’s the compelling family story that helps the audience overlook the fact that the style of Silver Dollar Road isn’t particularly notable. Peck’s sweeping drone shots are memorable and capture the beauty of the area, but most of the film is made up of traditional talking heads. Because of the Reels family’s outgoing nature, this style of interviewing is adequate. The use of title cards slows down the film’s narrative flow. It’s also a reminder that Silver Dollar Road began its life as a ProPublica article written by Lizzie Presser. For those familiar with the article that came out in 2019, the documentary may feel a little sparse, but the existence of the film will hopefully allow the story to reach a wider audience.

Silver Dollar Road is an exposition of the abuses of power that are leveled against the Reels family. Its story of injustice at the hands of a system that is supposed to provide justice for all remains, unfortunately, timely.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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