Silver Dollar Road: The Power of Land

Set in North Carolina, Silver Dollar Road gives voice to the Reels Family. Having lived near Silver Dollar Road for generations, the Reels have claim to its stunning waterfront property. However, due to complicated legal proceedings, the land is taken away from them by land developers. What follows is a horrifying tale of harassment, unjust imprisonment and legal proceedings that speak to the toxic soul of the American judicial system.

Directed by Raoul Peck, Silver Dollar is a heartbreaking journey of one family’s attempt to fight the system, while the system actively fights back against them. Nominated for an Oscar for I Am Not Your Negro, Peck once again peels back the layers of his subjects to expose the racial toxicity that oppresses them. Although he follows them from start to finish, Peck never appears on camera. To him, this is an opportunity to give this family the power to speak and he wants to keep the Reels front and centre.

In the Reels, Peck has found a family that is both endearing and courageous. Told through the voice of matriarch Mamie Reels Ellison and her niece Kim Renee Duhon, the film elevates these strong women who fight heroically to keep their family’s legacy intact. At the same time, the film leans into the despair of Melvin and Licurtis, their brother and uncle who were wrongfully imprisoned yet did so believing their sacrifice was worth the effort, even if the system is undoubtedly stacked against them.

By following the Reels, Peck has a fascinating window into the tragedy of racism in the legal world. Frankly, it’s shocking to see how deeply embedded into the system discrimination has become. With each amendment and clause, Silver Dollar increasingly highlights the ways that the American legal system favours the wealthy. Despite the proof that they offer, the Reels consistently face persecution from others who would love to take their land for themselves.

But the Reels are not alone.

By the end of this Road, Peck ensures that we realize that the Reels are one of many families who continue to fight for the right to own their land. As such, Peck’s focus on one family becomes even more tragic. Just like the Reels, countless others face the injustice of having that which has been handed down through generations taken away from them. Echoing the deepest pain of American history, their story is hardly uncommon. (“If you know the history of this land, it was always about land from the first day. Stealing the land of the indigenous people, killing them and pretending that you have a right to own property, which is a totally European concept,” we’re reminded.)

In Silver Dollar Road, landownership is power. And the Reels are struggling to hold onto either.

In this way, Silver Dollar Road’s cry for justness extends beyond the pain of one family by calling the entire system itself into question. To Peck, the Reels are merely one of many who are facing an uphill battle against a system that is fueled by racial oppression. Although the film has a spark of hope, the broken nature of American culture is what weighs on the viewer in the end. After all, for many, this Road only leads to suffering.

Silver Dollar Road premiered at TIFF ’23 and is available on Amazon Prime on Friday, October 20th, 2023.

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