At the center of American inequality experienced by Black Americans is all the land they have been promised and all the land they have lost. One of our most essential documentarians, Raoul Peck adapts a significant feature from ProPublica, co-published with The New Yorker, about a family who bought land one generation after slavery and how the family went to jail for civil contempt, for refusing to turn over their land. It is a difficult story because it speaks to a difficult generational truth about the historical inequities of Black land loss in America and how the system is designed to take that land.
This is a story about two brothers, Melvin and Licurtis Reels, who stood by their great-grandfather’s land in Carteret County, North Carolina, and went to jail for it, in one of the longest sentences ever issued for civil contempt, for eight years in defense of their land rights, without a fair hearing. The night their great-grandfather passed in 1970, he gave his final wish: “Whatever you do, don’t let the white man have the land.” There was no will signed and nothing established about what the courts ought to do with the land, the courts being made up of the same white people who would try to take the land, and subsequently, the same people would send the brothers to jail.
The case reminds us of the generations of inequities and the unseen reparations provided for Black Americans. While they were promised “Forty acres and a mule,” that quote is so often called upon because it shows the totality of the false white promise about reparations, a make-believe scenario that sounded good, wasn’t actionable, and didn’t amount to very much. Likewise, as the article is such a sharp showcase of, so much generational inequity for Black Americans is tied to land rights and especially Black land loss.
Raoul Peck uses the article and its call for justice as a jumping off point for his new documentary. This is a good starting point. There is already a call to action baked into the story. That’s one major thing a documentary can do. In giving a visual portrait of the situation, we are given a new framing device for the story. Peck’s decisions in collating the material after the article are squared in one direction, to give voice back to the family, and allow them to tell their story as an adjunct to the popular ProPublica article about them.
The new documentary does not represent the full story. You ought to read the article and then watch the movie, to understand everything the movie is saying and then to better personalize what the documentary is saying about the Reels family and their land and how special it is. There are preliminary documentary tricks used to create a broad sweep of the land. A lot of time spent in drone footage. Animated family trees showcase the lineage and the deeply rooted family connection to the land. There’s a wonderful segment with a new generation where a young girl makes up a song on the spot about how this is their land, how it has always been, and how it is everything and anything to them, as the other children clap and stomp along as they parade down Silver Dollar Road.
Raoul Peck is a great conveyer of social issues. That Silver Dollar Road does not offer the total context of the situation or the profound reckoning of I Am Not Your Negro (2017) or Exterminate All the Brutes (2021), is as much about the singularity of purpose that the new documentary represents and it’s want to show only the one true representable side of the issue. The test of a documentary is often whether someone with no outside interest may find everything they need and come out of the documentary a person with inspired and given interest, but that is not truly the case here. What the documentary does is push the audience to do their own research. Go read the article, before or after, and then see the documentary. It is a good companion piece but it must still be a companion piece for an informed reading of the situation that it presents. And the other truth about documentaries is that they do not always provide their own easy ending point. Sometimes, as is ideally the case with this documentary, their purpose is to help encourage a real-life ending that is better than the one the people in the documentary have been granted. However you approach his new documentary, we all ought to listen to Raoul Peck, one of the form’s most crucial voices with the most to say about America.