When I saw the trailer for “Silver Dollar Road”, I was immediately pulled into the plight of the Reels family and wanted to know more. While it is a difficult story to see, after watching the film, I better understand the struggle of the family and how their plight is the same one many other families experience. The story is emotional and impactful, all about family loss but also about how the family fights to preserve their legacy for future generations.
“Silver Dollar Road” is a documentary film written, directed, and co-produced by Raoul Peck based on a ProPublica (in collaboration with The New Yorker) article “Kicked off the Land” by Lizzie Presser. The film follows a water front property passed through generations of the Reels family that becomes the subject to harassment by land developers. The family battles against the developers to save their land.
One of the aspects that strikes on quickly in the film was how long the family has been on the land they own. The film details the origin of their land ownership with the first owner one generation from slavery. When Mitchell Reels bought the land, he wanted to ke
ep it in his family and away from white hands. When he died he didn’t leave a will and that put the land at risk. It allowed the land to be subject to loopholes and laws that help speculators take advantage and acquire the property. The film does a fantastic job of laying out the dilemma and the consequences to the Reels family.
The story of the family and their time on the land is woven through footage of documents but mostly through interviews and photos of the family. We meet the family, Gertrude the matriarch, her daughter Mami, her sons Melvin and Licurtis as well as other family members. The footage and interviews relates the family history but also delves into the loss of their land, acreage bordering the water that Melvin worked as a fisherman and ran a club and where Licurtis had built a house. When the men refused to leave their land, they ended up in jail.
The film also delves into the emotional weight of the loss and the impact on the Reels when Melvin and Licurtis spent eight years in prison for the charge of trespassing, on their own land. The film shows how much the family fought, how hard they worked to get the story out and why it was important to them. This was their family land, their happiness, and they didn’t have the money to just relocate. They also are aware that if their land is developed, then it hurts the land costs for the other families around them. They wanted to create a safe space for black landowners and to create a family legacy. The film is fantastic at helping the viewer understand and empathize with the family. I also love that despite the family loss, we get to see moments of family love and joy.
There are a couple issues I did run into. One of the issues is the information that is provided at the beginning of the film on the family. It is scrolled down the screen but goes fast so is hard to follow. There are also moments that do drag, where there is a lot of talking that essentially repeats information already provided. Despite that, the filmmakers do a great job of expressing how long a time Melvin and Licurtis were unfairly incarcerated, how difficult a time the family had, and how much they fought to preserve their land. They are still fighting to keep their land safe. This film is about the family loss of their land and the film truly shows how unjust it is and how widespread it is in other communities. For every family that fights, how many cannot?
If you love documentaries that discuss family, justice, and the inequality between the rich and the poor, this is one you may want to watch. It will educate you more about inequalities that frankly are tied to race but also lack of wealth. I hope you find yourself empathizing with the Reels family and their loss. I know I did. The story was impactful and emotional. It is heartbreaking at points but while it is about the family loss, it also shows how strong they fought and how important family is. It also shows the ways the legal system has been used to keep the racial wealth gap growing. That injustice is important to learn about and prevent. But it is also powerful to see one family fighting that injustice.
Rating: 4 out of 5 family members