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‘Silver Dollar Road’ documentary spotlights injustice faced by Black North Carolina farmers

A documentary tells the story of the Reels family, and highlights the discrimination against Black people within the agricultural industry.

Pictured are members of the Reels family, whom the “Silver Dollar Road” documentary is based on and told by. (Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Studios)

In a Georgetown Ritz hotel room sat film director and producer Carlton Raoul Peck, and behind him was a “Silver Dollar Road” poster. Smiling enthusiastically, he began talking about the project and how the Reels family reminds him of an ordinary Black family, much like his own.

Produced by Viola Davis, “Silver Dollar Road” is a documentary that tells the story of the Reels family as told by its matriarch, Mamie Reels Ellison, and her niece, Kim Renee Duhon. The two robust and wise women bent bravely to defend their ancestors’ land and their relatives Melvin and Licurtis, who were wrongfully imprisoned for eight years — the longest sentence for civil contempt in North Carolina history.

The movie starts with their 94-year-old grandmother, Gertrude, celebrating her birthday. The family describes how strong and hardworking she is. Then, there were flashbacks of the Reels family playing in the water during the summer as kids. The movie’s beginning shows a traditional Black family enjoying one’s company and a mother who farmed to make ends meet.  

“When shooting this film, I felt at home in that small county in North Carolina with a Black family who could have been my own family. I come from Haiti and know these kinds of situations,” Peck said.

During the early 1900s, the Reels family inherited a beachfront on the coast of North Carolina. The beachfront was a safe space for African Americans to go swimming, dancing and obtain agriculture.

A plot twist occurred when the land was secretly sold to a white real estate developer without the family’s permission in the late 1970s by Melvin and Licurtis’ distant uncle, who took advantage of the complex regulations surrounding heirs’ property. 

Melvin and Licurtis were persistent in their refusal to give up the property, determined to retrieve what was rightfully theirs. Their persistence resulted in their false conviction for civil disobedience in 2011, which resulted in the toughest punishment ever imposed for such an offense in North Carolina,eight long years behind bars.

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According to Reuters, experts estimate that Black farmers possessed more than 16 million acres of land in 1910. This amount was only 4.7 million acres in 2017, the year of the most recent agricultural census, or roughly 0.5 percent of all cropland.

To combat this issue, the Biden Administration has launched the Inflation Reduction Act, which will offer compensation to anyone who has experienced discrimination because of their color, gender, sexual orientation, or other characteristics concerning loans provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Discrimination by the USDA in its loan practices has a long history. The statute specifies that $2.2 billion will be put aside for these claims, with a maximum of $500,000 available for each share.  

Even though the administration is trying to combat this issue, Black families are still fighting to save their land. Unfortunately, situations like the Reels brothers happen daily.

“Our heritage is everything, and that kept me in the fight. I hope people will look at this film and take it seriously and get their affairs in order. Systemically, it feels like Black people are still being preyed upon,” Duhon said, “ The other unfortunate thing is that there is an entitlement to them. It’s like rich white people look at us and say, ‘You don’t deserve this. I do,’” she continued.

The documentary was recently showcased at the March on Washington Film Festival and will be available to view on Oct. 20 on Amazon Prime. 

Copy edited by Diamond Hamm

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