More than a century ago, a generation removed from slavery, the Reels family acquired a 65-acre plot of coastal land in North Carolina. They built it up over generations into a haven for Black Americans in the South, a welcoming and safe community rich with outdoor resources and social activities; during the late segregation era, no other beach in the county allowed Black people at all. Anchored by Silver Dollar Road, a bustling residential street that ran through the middle of the plot, the land was designated low value at sale, but that changed with consistent investments, the beautiful waterfront homes, and surrounding nature. With that came interest from white developers, and with that came a cruel exploitation of tenuous existing legal protections for ancestral holdings. Following a Reels patriarch’s passing in the 1970s, the land became heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which heirs inherit their descendant’s interest, which left it vulnerable to legal loopholes and led, shockingly, to the sale of a portion of the land without some of the family’s consent. They’ve been fighting to keep it ever since.
How can such a thing happen? A celebrated 2019 ProPublica article by Lizzie Presser intricately unpacked the Reelses’ story, and centered on adult brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, who endured a horrific eight-year prison sentence for civil contempt resulting from their refusal to relinquish their property. Their experience is now the subject of a bracingly emotional, politically urgent new documentary from Oscar nominee Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro): Silver Dollar Road, premiering this weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival before Amazon Studios releases it in October. (Watch the exclusive trailer above.)
The ProPublica article offered a searing indictment of the archaic laws and loopholes, the fatal sense of civic indifference, that kept one family struggling for decades to simply hold on to what it’d always rightly owned. The Haitian-born Peck, whose filmmaking examines systems of race and class in the US and beyond, had been asked by Amazon to join a documentary adaptation of the article as a producer. Deep into the research, he then signed on to direct the project himself. What he finds in Silver Dollar Road is revelatory, even as it revisits the order of events first outlined by Presser. Peck takes us straight into the community, into its sounds, enduring joys, and increasing despairs, and allows the Reelses to tell their story without interruption—they are our narrators, our characters, our heroes.
The result is a vital American family portrait that doubles as a vivid examination of American land and identity. As Peck tells Vanity Fair in his first interview about Silver Dollar Road, the story of the Reels family says as much about them as it does about their country—and its history.
Vanity Fair: Coming off of the ProPublica article about the Reels family, what was your goal in making this documentary about them?
Raoul Peck: I felt responsible to give them the voice they need and they deserve. It's like they have been having that fight alone in a little corner of this country, and as they cry over the roofs, nobody bothers because there are so many other, sometimes more dramatic cases. The notions of what your land is, where you belong and how you get the value of your work—it’s not just a land issue, it’s an identity issue. What do these people mean for the whole country? Because they are totally American. They built on that land. And they built it, by the way, accepting to be on the margin…. The former enslaved could only buy land that had zero value, and they made it productive. Then people started to say, “Well, we want that land.” That's the other part of the story that people don't really realize: It started with violence. The exodus of Black people to the north is not like, “Okay, things are getting tough, let's go.” They were violently excluded, to steal their land.
I associate your documentaries with an urgent, expansive style—in I Am Not Your Negro, for instance, you make very intellectual and complex connections between James Baldwin’s work and American life. In Silver Dollar Road, I was struck by your close focus on the family. They narrate the entire film. How did you find getting to know them?
I felt at home. I was introduced by Lizzie [Presser], and they trusted me right away. They didn't know who I was and what I've done before; I benefited from the kind of familiarity that Lizzie had with them because she did the legwork. As a documentarian, part of my job is to really, before I use my camera, make sure that the people have accepted me and that I'm not bringing more problems into their life—that I make sure that I really understand where they come from and what is their tragedy or what is their life.
This could have been Haiti, it could have been Congo, any of those places where I’ve gone and met the family. The uncles, the nieces, the aunties, the grandmother, the parties, the barbecue. I've lived through that with many different families, so I didn't feel that I was not at home. My job was somehow to find first the angle of: Who is telling the story? Very quickly it was clear to me that in order to give them their voice, it had to be Mamie [Reels Ellison] on one side, and Kim Renee Duhon, of another generation.
Both women complete each other; they have a powerful voice. You hear Mamie talking, and she has a very clear understanding of class. She says at one point, “What are you going to do with us Black people?” and then she changes it to, “What are you going to do with us poor people?” That's a class analysis, because she understood it was beyond her color. It's about a whole country being transformed through money and greed, and she's clear in everything of that…. I didn't feel that I had to go there and educate anybody. My job was to let them tell their story.
The footage covers several different periods in their lives. How much time did you spend with them?
I went there three times [over six months], and I had them coming to New York, both Mamie and Kim, so that I could really spend time with them—because it's hard when you're there to extract them from the circumstances. I needed to find them in a neutral place and to get them out. It was very moving, because it was the first time Mamie took an airplane to go out of her environment.
Each time I went I would spend 10 to 15 days there, not much more. I made sure by the time I came back, I had already edited hours and hours of material that existed. I knew exactly what I needed to make the film I wanted. I knew what interview I needed, I knew what I needed to have a conversation about. I knew the main characters. Usually when you go into a documentary like this, you have to interview a lot of people and hope that at the end of the day you will find your narration. But here it was even more conceptual: I had a 10- to 12-day period where I knew exactly who I wanted to spend the time with, and they were ready.
You were asked about producing this movie before you decided to direct it, as based on the original article. How did you want to build on it? What made this feel like a film?
If I'm looking at American cinema, American documentary today, there is a convention now in telling a story about people. They have a problem; you go make a film about it and you leave; and the rest of the world just sees a film and they continue their life. For me, it's important to not only to feel that you are there with them, but that their existence is as important as yours. That's the most important thing for me. And to do that, you can't rely on a traditional [format]. I could have made it a crime story because that’s what most people were probably interested in. Two men who went to prison for eight years. Yes, that's dramatic, but it's not the two men who went to prison. It's the whole family went to prison for more than eight years. So how do you convey that?
I wouldn’t say your work ever boils down to a straightforward crime story, though. Was it difficult to push your vision through?
I don't make documentaries as a more artistic report on the subject. For me, it has also to be a film that you can watch several times, be enriched with characters, with drama. If it’s a Netflix film—or yeah, even Amazon as well—you need to tell them what the film is in the first three minutes. I resist that, because if I do that, you don't even have to bother to know those people. You can't humanly see them as human beings because they’re already a product. We are failing more and more in that. All films are becoming products. You have to resist that to keep the organic development of a story, the humanness of it.
Every time I watch your films, I learn a lot. I'm curious, in the process of making this one, what you learned about your own filmmaking, since this did feel like a different kind of project for you.
Funny enough, I'm much more insecure in the sense that, usually, I feel that I'm doing something nobody has done before. [Laughs] That's the ambition. For this project, I felt like I was an older filmmaker trying to save something, to make sure that this film would be strong, coherent, clear, human, and to protect the story from whoever. Against everybody, basically. I had to make sure that this family would come unscratched from this experience—to honor them and respect them and make sure that they are at the center. That was the most different experience for me. Usually I have more control because it's my own inspiration. I do whatever I want. This was, How do I bring you into the head of those people and make them close to you, so you can recognize yourself in them, whether you are Black or not—as just a family, like any other family.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Silver Dollar Road premieres Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival. The documentary hits theaters on October 13 before streaming on Prime Video beginning October 20. This feature is part of Awards Insider’s exclusive fall-festival coverage, featuring first looks and in-depth interviews with some of this coming season’s biggest contenders.