Land ownership has been the holy grail of financial stability and generational wealth for Black families since post-slavery times. Prime Video’s Silver Dollar Road introduces the Reels family of North Carolina, whose family legacy was jeopardized due to unjust and unfair practices. 

The 65-acre stretch of marshland known as Silver Dollar Road was the family’s crown jewel since 1944 when patriarch Mitchell Reels purchased it. 

The land was the family’s primary funnel for income. The private beach provided the waters they fished from and ample room for growing various crops. Silver Dollar Road also became a haven for other Black families for summer fun in the segregated South. 

Until 2000, the family had thrived on the land under the watchful eye of 95-year-old Gertrude Reels. Reels raised her children, LiCurtis, Melvin and Mamie, on Silver Dollar Road, expecting the land to be in their family forever. 

During that period, a local development company took possession of the land, creating a domino effect of legal troubles for the family, including jail time for Melvin and LiCurtis. 

The documentary, directed by Raoul Peck, chronicles the Reels’ fight for what they feel is rightfully theirs. 

Photo: Prime Video

Peck picked the documentary up after a 2019 ProPublica feature by Lizzie Presser shed light on the family’s dispossession. 

Peck spoke with Shadow and Act about how the Reels’ story represents the harrowing truth for many Black families. 

“This could happen anywhere. I wanted people to understand this could be your family,” Peck said.

The basis of the injustice against the Reels is a direct correlation between Black families and the legal system.

Mitchell Reels did not have a living will when he died, resulting in the land passing to his children through heirs’ property.

The loophole allowed the land development company to claim ownership of uninhabited land after one of the family members sold their share.

Such practices aren’t new. Throughout the 20th century, Black farmers, families and landowners have lost over 90% of their land due to courts not recognizing the heirs.

Silver Dollar Road introduces several members of the Reels family and documents their realities and struggles through their family’s ordeal.

Viewers meet Mamie, the daughter who attempts to keep a family strong; Kim, a niece who served as the mouthpiece to get help; Melvin, the oldest son whose time in jail fueled a fire to get his land back; and LiCurtis, the son whose life halted and sent him into darkness after serving almost nine years in jail for simply being. 

Photo: Prime Video

“I had to tell this story the right way, or it simply would have been a crime documentary,” the director of the Academy Award-nominated 2016 effort I Am Not Your Negro said.

“You see each character, their inner life, and how they react differently,” he explained. “They are not cliché. For me, that was important.”

The documentary captures the family’s fight with the local legal system and dealing with exploitation from people they thought were there to help. Paid-out legal fees were nearing six figures, but they had nothing to show. These instances led to understandable apprehension for the family regarding outsiders.

Peck emphasized the importance of allowing the family to tell their story to help overcome their distrust.

“I didn’t want this to be a story of two men who went to jail for nothing. I had to spend time with them to create that trust,” he said.

He mentioned one of the striking scenes when one of the family members breaks down in response to their demons.

“I knew I had to hear him and have him voice his feelings. So it took me more time.”

Meeting the individual in his comfort zone gave Peck raw, authentic emotion that resonates with viewers.

His calculated tactics to get the family to open up were the only comfort measures that Peck took during the documentary.

There was no coaching, redirecting or polishing of the family members. Their genuine emotions and mindsets are triggering, which Peck intended.

He also spoke about the documentary highlighting the universal understanding of economic oppression and inequity attached to colonialism and stealing land, adding, “I want their first reaction to be anger. I want the viewer to say, ‘I think that happened to me too.'” 

“This is a traumatic situation. This started with sheer terror to steal the land. When Black families lose land, they lose home,” Peck declared. 

Silver Dollar Road streams globally on Prime Video this Friday.