Raoul Peck on a Path Towards Equity in “Silver Dollar Road”

When Mamie Reels Ellison and Kim Renee Duhon made the trip to the Toronto Film Festival, it was the first time Ellison and her niece had been out of the U.S., with their family rooted in the North Carolina coast for generations where Elijah Reels acquired swamp land at the turn of the 20th century and saw an opportunity to create a safe haven for Black families such as his in an area that had been undesirable to the prevailing white population. The family had no reason to be on edge, nor would you expect them to be after seeing “Silver Dollar Road,” which shows how formidable the family has had to become in the face of a challenge to their rights to their land now that what was once considered muddy waters is now attractive beachfront property, in part because of the vision that Elijah and his son Mitchell had for it, but having a personal story projected on a giant screen for an audience abroad can be disorienting for even those with the most steely nerves and as they might’ve felt like they were in entirely new territory on a number of fronts, it was incumbent upon director Raoul Peck to gently guide them up to the stage after the film ended to receive their overdue applause, just as he had helped shepherd their story to the screen.

“For me, it was like bringing part of my family on the stage because the only way you can make a film like this is to feel very close to them,” says Peck. “But when [Mamie] saw the film the first time, and I think she said this in Toronto, was what a relief it was for her because now she didn’t feel the weight on her shoulder that she has to carry that story alone. Now the film is going to continue telling the story and that huge responsibility that she felt — like an African griot who has to continue telling the story again and again so that it doesn’t die — the film will be part of that story now.”

“Silver Dollar Road” is also part of a larger story that Peck has spent his career working towards, building on the work of ProPublica reporter Jessica Presser, whose 2019 article was the foundation for the film and even laid the groundwork for a feature by bringing a camera along during her years-long investigation. Observing the ongoing grip of colonialism on the collective psyche and powerful institutions even if it appears it’s been stamped out over time, Peck puts the Reels’ plight into its proper context when even if the law itself was on their side, the process was not when they are brought to court by Adams Creek, an unscrupulous real estate developer, that seizes upon a relative’s specious claim to part of the family’s land, leading to a legal battle where the family without the deep pockets of the opposition is threatened to be exhausted by the long, drawn out proceedings. When Adams Creek had the means to financially overpower the Reels and enlist local authorities to enforce orders rooted in the legal limbo that they themselves created, Peck sees the present-day tragedy of having two members of the family, Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, sentenced to eight years in prison after being considered trespassers in their own homes while connecting it to a grander history of Black Americans who invested deeply in building thriving communities that have been erased on the whims of those who forced their segregation in the first place.

If the powers that be are capricious, the Reels show remarkable resolve and in his initimable style, Peck allows their strength to come through undiluted as Mamie and Kim are allowed to tell the story in their own words about taking on the challenge ahead of them and relate all they’ve had to overcome before. Following the film’s premiere in Toronto, “Silver Dollar Road” is arriving this week in theaters in the U.S. ahead of its worldwide release on Prime Video and Peck spoke about his unexpected path to making the film, one of the few he hasn’t originated himself, the importance of recounting history from a clear point of view and how the land itself can tell a story.

When your career has coalesced around this global story of inequity, I wonder at this point in your career, did you know you’d be spending so much time in America?

Well, I think all my life, because I never really left. I’ve been always coming back and forth and living in different places, but America or New York or Miami have been the closest to my country Haiti, so it’s always a place I live and my parents lived here for a long while. My brothers lived here. So I never really left. The other aspect is the place and the role of the United States of America in the history of the world, in the history of my country, and all modern history. For somebody interested in history and politics, you can’t avoid it.

You were initially set to be an executive producer on this and then eventually stepped into the director’s chair, and research is generally such a huge part of your process, but I know a lot of that was already done by the ProPublica team. Was that a different way into the film for you?

Yes. And by the way, I rarely really take on projects that are brought to me. It really depends if I can see how I can integrate them in my body of work because I do want to stay coherent and I know more or less what I want to do and what I do not want to do. So in this particular case, I understood it was not just a film about the Reels family, but about the bigger structural problem that touches the very origin of this country, it made sense because I could easily link “Silver Dollar Road” to “Exterminate All the Brutes” and to even “I Am Not Your Negro,” so those three films are almost a trilogy. It’s just illuminated from different point of view and narrative and situations.

Once I got that, indeed, the research was done, and I could rely on the incredible work by Lizzie Presser, who really did her homework and spent basically two years working on the subject and documenting it with images as well. That’s very rare, so it was fortunate that I didn’t have to do that myself. But then I also found an incredible trove of archives. There were 90 hours of material and I went through that material and all the interviews that existed, so I was able to make choices. I was able to say, “Okay, I need to make a film, not another report or statistic. I wanted to be close to the human part of the story. That’s why I decided that [the Reels] were going to be the storytellers and they were going to be at the center of the film itself.

The idea of a central voice has always been striking in your nonfiction work, but I realized just how unusual it is here when even within the Reels family, you’re able to bring focus to Kim and Mamie in the midst of this sprawling story. Is it important for you to locate someone to take you through a story like that?

Yeah. Filmmakers manipulate because that’s what we do, but in my case, before I try to manipulate with what is basically narration and writing a story, I observe. I like the expression that is being used all the time here, “Read the room.” So in reading the room, Mamie was there and was the one pulling up everything and Kim was helping and the two women confer all the time and coordinate their actions. I had to choose somebody [to anchor the story] that you see right away, and they are incredible narrators. They know their story. They know the twists and turns and they have a way to tell it in a very concise way. That’s all you need for a filmmaker, and my task was to make sure that I make a film and not a journalistic inquiry. That’s not my role. I needed and wanted to make a film that you could watch several times and enter it as you enter a story. That the story is very close to a reality and can implicate things that really happen, that’s another thing, but as a filmmaker, I still need to make a story and to tell it in a way that is artistically special.

You’ve always been so good at evoking history simply from capturing the environment where it took place. What was it like stepping foot onto the Carolina coast for the first time to get a feeling there?

I think the instinct to let the family tell the story came from that feeling when I got there. I felt even physically, when you land at the nearest airport, you drive to the next city, you arrive in Beaufort, which is a white city [where there’s a lot of] big yachts and a lot of tourism. I don’t think I saw more than three Black people in the streets, and they were mostly workers in the shops. Then you drive towards Silver Dollar Road. Once you pass the bridge and then you start seeing communities, mostly Black. And you can actually see that the further you go, the poorer it is. The further you go, the less are the houses painted, the more junkyards and untamed garden you see, and then at one point, there is nothing. You arrive at Silver Dollar Road, so that means you are in a totally uncharted territory, you are elsewhere.

So as a director, this is like a theater. You have your stage, it’s right there. Why would you go elsewhere? You have the streets, you have the forest, you have the chapel, you have the three cemeteries, you have the water, and you have the crime scene. I don’t need anything else to tell my story. And I found the characters very rapidly. Mamie, Kim, the two brothers, Gertrude [the family matriarch], that’s the set of characters. You can’t put 20 characters in a film. You have to reduce because it’s storytelling and you need to live with them, to feel like them and then to dignify them, to make them human and to be part of their life and to bring the audience as well to know who they are before you talk about drama, about prison and all that. Otherwise you use them because you want to tell a crime story, like two men unjustly accused of a crime, which is not a crime, and then they spent eight years of prison. That’s something that you can sell, but I’m not selling that. I’m selling a much profound story that is the story of this country.

It’s magnificently structured. Was there any direction this took you didn’t expect or had a dimension of the story that you might not have known at the start once you were in the middle of it?

No, the problem at this stage was much more, how do I not fuck it up? [laughs] Because everything was there. That’s an incredible story and it was brought to me and it fits perfectly in what I do. I knew I could do it well, and I’m so pleased by the success of it and how the audience reflects on it. I’m so amazed about the discussion we have after the screenings. It hits a nerve, and people are angry. But they are not just angry. They want to move forward. They want to know more. They want to do something. And that’s the least you can expect. And it’s there. So I’m very grateful for that.

“Silver Dollar Road” opens on October 13th in Los Angeles at the Culver Theater and New York at the Quad Cinema. It will start streaming globally on October 20th on Prime Video.

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