Interview: Documentarian Raoul Peck Discusses Silver Dollar Road, the Story of a Family, Land and Its Legacy on Generations

From Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro, The Young Karl Marx, Lumumba), Silver Dollar Road follows the story of the Reels family as told by the matriarch Mamie Reels Ellison and her niece Kim Renee Duhon, two fierce and clear-eyed women who throw their entire lives into safeguarding their vast ancestral property in North Carolina. In the middle of a decades-long legal battle, their brothers and uncles, Melvin and Licurtis, are wrongfully imprisoned for eight years—the longest sentence for civil contempt in North Carolina history.

Now streaming on Prime Video, this documentary (based on a 2019 ProPublica article by Lizzie Presser) highlights the covert ways the legal system has been exploited to keep Black land ownership on fragile footing and the racial wealth gap growing. And Peck does an astonishing job balancing conversations about property law with more emotionally driven discussions of holding onto something of value and great beauty.

I sat down with the Haitian-born Peck during his recent visit to attend the Chicago International Film Festival, and we discussed the running themes of both his narrative and documentary works, the personal connections he felt to the Reels family’s story, and the progress he’s made on his long-gestating documentary about George Orwell. Please enjoy our conversation…

I read somewhere that you won’t make a film unless you find a personal connection to it.

I’d say an organic connection, but yes.

Fair enough. Maybe not something directly connected to you, but something you identify with. What was that thing for this story?

I think it was the human aspect, because I felt very close to the family. They were people I knew, not only in Haiti but elsewhere. These kind of situations, I knew. I felt at home somehow, and I think their fight is the kind of fight I’ve been trying to raise all of my life. The decisive part was, as well, if you know my other films, I try to connect everything I do to the bigger picture. My goal is to make people understand, as James Baldwin had said, “Know your history. Know the past, because the past is the present.” They are connected, and if you don’t know and learn, you’re barely able to understand what’s going on today. If you cannot connect what happened when this land was built to why there are so many Black people in prison, you will never find out. Why are the schools so bad? Why can’t the Black population accumulate wealth? If you don’t connect those dots, it’s hard to understand what’s wrong in your life.

You bring up history. It’s my understanding that part of the Black experience in America is fighting against having your history erased. The story of this family feels like part of that—the legal system trying to erase generations of ownership.

Yes, and even if we don’t see it as a racial separation, coming back to Baldwin, one of his main analyses was the way he analyzed the white dominant population of this country. He said, “If I’m sick, you’re sick too.” It’s two sides of the same reality. If you don’t even know why you are subjecting me to the kind of stuff you’re doing, if you don’t even know where your own wealth comes from, if you don’t know what was the role of your ancestors in that story, how can you understand your own life? You’re like a blind man going into a forest. It goes both ways, and that’s one of the biggest problems in our society: ignorance. And unfortunately, despite modern technology, it’s not becoming better; it’s becoming worse because you don’t know what is true and untrue. And now you have people, who either don’t know their own history or they don’t want you to know the real history, like book banning now. Nobody could have guessed things would come back to that today. You don’t know your own culture, and now you’re fighting to not know more. It’s totally unanswered.

Let me back things up. Was the ProPublica article the first time you heard about the family at the center of your film?

Contrary to most of my projects, I didn’t initiate this one. I was approached by ProPublica, Amazon, and others as a group. Probably because they thought I would not direct it, they proposed that I be the executive producer, and I thought this was an incredible story. At first, I didn’t see it as something I would direct, but when I went further into it, I realized it was an organic continuation of what I’ve been doing for the last three movies. It’s about clarifying or unearthing the real story of this country, and the story of the story of the Reels family is an incredible distilling of it all, because it stretches over 140 years. There’s no way you can say “They weren’t there at the beginning.” The proof and evidence of the crime is right there. The family has three different cemeteries on the property. What does that tell you? So when I realized that this was a way bigger story than an individual or private story, which I never do, then it becomes clear to me, and I could make the bigger-picture connections in order to do it properly, and so I had to direct it.

Was one of the more challenging aspects of the film making property law cinematic? The moments that brought me back in focus were when you drop us onto a place on the property, usually with a guide, to just walk across a stretch of land. It reminded me what they were fighting for, something so beautiful.

That’s what is asked of a filmmaker. Once the research is done and the content is clear, when I came on board, it was about “How do I make a film of this? How do I make a story that I can watch again and again?” In this case, I had incredible characters. I had a crime. I had a location, which, as you say, is also a character in the film. And I have people who are fighting; they are not broken because they are still fighting. It’s like Raging Bull: you fall down but you get back up again. So I had all the ingredients, and the rest is what I know how to do, to tread a compelling, almost Shakespearean drama, a story that can stand with tension, drama, incredible characters. And I chose the two women as the storytellers. You talk about the animation, the music, it was all about creating a work, something that was much more than reporting the story. It had to be a film.

I didn’t realize until recently was that Lizzie and ProPublica had a video crew a lot of their research and reporting. Could you have even made this film with that footage?

It would have been a different film, but yes, Lizzie had a small crew to document her work. For them, it was strictly documenting in a different medium, just to have it. Even if they had the idea to make a documentary at some point—because people in the organization know the power of images—it doesn’t make a film. For me, it was an incredible archival trove showing beautiful, strong people, that you only could have gotten by being imbedded with the family. You could see Lizzie and her team capturing all of these sad and happy moments, and without that, my film would have a totally different quality. To have all of that at my disposal, I knew what film I could make. I could conceive a very precise shoot, I knew what I needed. My first step was to make decisions. 

I knew I would stay with the family. I didn’t need anything else, I didn’t need what usually US documentaries had, which is to show you two sides, especially when you use stake money. You usually have to have some objectivity, but I live in a world where objectivity was never something that came my way. I was abused by everything that was not objective. So for once, I’m giving that family the voice. I would have confronted them with this so-called “other side.” But I wanted to stay with the family, to know them, to feel them, to see them as human beings and not as victims. If you approach it differently, you make victims out of them, and they just become a case.

Some documentary filmmakers choose the fly-on-the-wall approach, where they don’t get involved. You’ve never struck me as that kind of filmmaker. What did you do to ingratiate yourself into the family?

Fortunately, I didn’t have to because Lizzie had already done the leg work. Contrary to many other journalists…actually that used to be how journalists worked, spending time with their subjects, but not any more. It’s all phone calls. So ProPublica still has this approach to journalism, and Lizzie spent a lot of time with the family and was able to get those moments. She didn’t have to play the filmmaker; she actually resisted being a filmmaker. So by the pure duration of her stay, she was able to transition me into the family; that went very quick. And by that time, also, the family wanted to see something happen, because they accepted Lizzie and her team to tell their story and make it so they don’t feel alone, but it was still not happening. So when I arrived, I had the position of being a savior: “He’s going to make it.” The first time I went, it was the grandmother’s birthday, so people from all over the country came to be there, and some of them had seen I Am Not Your Negro, so they were open to me the same way they were for Lizzie. It was a very pleasant experience to work with them.

This is still an ongoing story. The legal battles have not been resolved yet. So how do you know when it’s time to stop shooting and start making your film?

It was clear that the family’s story was not the only story. That’s why the way I entered the film was by being with the family. I wanted to know who they were. And in the end, their life continues. I didn’t want to make them a case; they are not a case. They are you and me; all life continues. Their fight continues. If you know my other films, you know I don’t respect the three-act structure, which has a clear ideological origin. It’s to make you engage with a case and then there’s a problem, good guys, bad guys, and in the end, the bad guys die or the family wins, and it’s a happy ending. But that’s not true, that’s not how reality is. So I don’t want to impose a false world where after seeing the film, you go home, that’s it, you have consumed a story. No, I make sure the film is the beginning of something else, and it starts in your own head, because the film forces you to think about your own life, your own role, and there is something bigger in society, and you have to deal with that. Reality is not a finished story; it’s an ongoing one. So I tried to make my structure is…I play with time, the present and the past. It’s the same in the life of these people.

Are you still making that George Orwell documentary?

We have been doing research for a year now. This is his century, where everybody is telling you that 2 + 2 = 5; and you have to fight to say “No, 2 + 2 = 4. It cannot be 5.”

Well best of luck with this and thank you.

Thank you very much.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.