Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck continues urgent reflections on race, gender and class with new doc Silver Dolla
Raoul Peck’s Silver Dollar Road continues the filmmaker’s urgent consideration of race, gender and class
Speaking with Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck over Zoom, the director gently laughs as he refers to what he calls his “injustice alarm.” It is a sentiment that’s offered with a smile, but there’s a matter-of-factness to Peck’s tone, too, that grounds the political intentions and motivations of his work with just this one phrase.
With a career spanning over 30 years, the Port-au-Prince-born director has documented histories of political unrest under colonial occupation (2000’s Lumumba), anti-Black violence and the fight for civil rights in America (2016’s I Am Not Your Negro), and, most recently, the violent global histories of Western imperialism and colonization (the 2021 HBO miniseries Exterminate All the Brutes).
Peck’s latest doc, Silver Dollar Road, continues the filmmaker’s urgent considerations of race, gender and class. Based on journalist Lizzie Presser’s reporting in the 2019 ProPublica article, Kicked Off The Land, Peck’s film traces the way in which U.S. social policy not only allowed for, but intended for, the dispossession of property held by Black land owners over generations.
Taking his title from the North Carolina area of land known as Silver Dollar Road, Peck reintroduces us to the complicated history of this waterfront property that has been lived on and tended to by the Reels family since the time of Reconstruction (1865-1877). We meet brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels – both of whom were imprisoned for eight years for refusing to leave their land after it was duplicitously sold off to developers – as well as 95-yearold matriarch Mamie Reels Ellison and her niece Kim Renee Duhon, both of whom have been pillars of resilience and strength to their family.
After the film’s world premiere at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, and ahead of its streaming premiere on Prime Video on Friday, Peck talked with The Globe and Mail about the complex and maddening history he tells of a family’s decades-long fight for land rights.
You originally signed on to produce the film – what was it that drew you to direct?
I fell in love with the story and with the people. I decided to go meet them and, when I did, it was Grandma Gertrude’s birthday. Not only was the immediate family there, but family came in from all different parts of the country and I felt at home, I felt an intimacy. They were a genuine family that were in an unthankful situation that shouldn’t have been happening. I could see they were exhausted. Grandma was 95, so it was also a battle of time; we didn’t have the leisure of filming slowly – there was no more time left. This was about, not only their lives, but their future.
You’ve spoken about preserving the dignity of Black life on screen and protecting the folks we see onscreen, especially in documentary filmmaking. How did you approach telling the Reels family’s story?
I strive to counter the dominant narrative in all of my films. It’s a matter of taking a stand on things, rather than settling into a false objectivity that purports to show “both sides.” All my life I have seen films from the other side that claim to be objective, but are still biased. My own history was never taught – the history of Haiti was silenced for a century. I don’t entertain those kinds of excuses anymore because it’s like asking me to fight in the ring with my hands tied behind my back. I take no prisoners on that front because it has been going on far too long. Most Black people, most Indigenous people, and women, for example, have been dealing with these false narratives forever and, now that those people are trying to defend themselves, suddenly everyone is fragile.
I appreciate your focus on the women in this family; the work they have done to protect their ancestral home, but also the way you allow them this space to express their vulnerabilities. What was your thinking behind centring them as the twin narrators of their family’s history?
It was simply the fact of things. As soon as I arrived, I saw who was running the show, who had the best insights and who was holding on to this fight for everyone else. The family needed to tell the story themselves. I didn’t feel like I had to impose myself as the director on this story – there was already a process taking place, there was already a history. I wanted to be, very humbly, in the background. I work a lot with archives and, for me, the Reels family was an archive. I had to be respectful of these lives, of these truths, of these people. I had to be sure to preserve the work that had already been done.
There was an understanding in the family that these were incredibly strong women. They also had incredibly political insights. Even if, at times, they didn’t have the exact terms for it, they understood exactly how class was working, how race was working. And they made me feel so welcome, which in turn, showed up in the film as a real kind of intimacy. It was an incredible exchange. I felt my responsibility was to protect them and make sure they were understood without positioning them as victims. They are fighters.
I loved the incorporation of home video footage shot by the Reels family. Why did you choose to end on this note?
This is life. In terms of storytelling, I’m very much against the idea of a product. American cinema especially offers this idea of a closed world – there was a problem, you made a film about the problem, and at the end there was a solution. But this isn’t how life works. There are things there will never be a solution for. How can you repair having lived eight years in prison? How can you repair the trauma of that for everybody in the family? I wanted to show that they are still alive, still together and still fighting. Thank god that, despite it all, we have life. We have love.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Globe and Mail