With an esteemed filmography that points a critical lens towards society’s unjust power structures throughout history, Raoul Peck continues to be one of the most important working filmmakers. His latest work, Silver Dollar Road, sees the Haitian director examining the case of the Reels family of North Carolina and their fight to keep their land. Taking its cues from a 2019 ProPublica article, this striking film gives voice to their struggle and its far-reaching implications for Black communities in America. To learn more about the making of the film, Awards Radar talked with Raoul Peck about the thematic throughlines of his work and the urgent need for us all to challenge the capitlaist status quo.
Shane Slater: This film is a bit more contemporary than your previous work. How did you hear about their story, and what made you decide to make it into the film?
Raoul Peck: All my films are made because of the present time. For me, to be able to fight today, you need to know your history. So I always make the link back and forth. Like when Baldwin or Sven Lindqvist says, “the present is the past and the past is the present,” it’s a dialectic movement. So I try to have that movement all the time in all my films.
So indeed, this film was different in the sense that I came on board when a lot of the stuff existed already, the research had been done. Lizzie Presser of ProPublica has done an incredible job. She identified a real family and was the first to meet them. She spent a lot of time with them, to have different video crews filming moments of their life. And so when I came on board, not only did I have incredible research, but also archive footage. Both from the family and from Lizzie Presser’s work.
So my job at this stage was to, first of all accept to make it if I found a way to link it to my previous work. I only do film in a very organic way. It has to fit into what I’m doing and what I’m thinking and what I’m fighting. So I realized this particular story of the Reels family is just the perfect vehicle for the bigger story, which is not only land loss, but also the land theft from the very beginning of this nation. It started with stealing land. And it’s incredible that in 2023, it’s still about stealing land. So when you can make that connection, you are perfectly in the scope of what I do.
SS: What were some of your first impressions when you actually arrived there, met the family and experienced the community?
RP: Well, I did my homework. I read everything I could, I read all the interviews, watched all the existing interviews that they have done. So I had a pretty clear idea of who each person was, even though all are not in the film, but there were interviews as well that existed. So I had a good sense of the geography of the place, the human geography. the relationships, who was who. And going there for the first time during the 95th Birthday of Gertrude Reels, the grandmother, when other people came from many parts of the country. I could also observe the interactions, the feelings and the fact that they were making speeches about the life and the life of Gertrude, the matriarch. And I was well equipped to observe from my corner what was going on.
Lizzie had done the legwork also to introduce me to the family because she was totally adopted by the family. You can see in the footage that she was inimate with the bad moments and the good moments. And that of course helps as a documentary filmmaker. I spent a lot of time getting the trust of people before I take out my camera.
So in this case, that was already done. So it was just for me to find my own bearings and also see, that could be my family. My grandmother, my uncles, they are all Black. Wherever you are, it’s the same dynamic. So I felt totally at ease, and I was accepted as well. They trust me very quickly, because they trusted Lizzie. And you can’t underestimate the fact that it was very clear for them. It was a matter of life and death for them that the story goes out, you know? Because they are at the end of their ropes in that fight. And as long as that fight stays in that little community, with the same power structure above them, they will not succeed. But now, it’s blown up in the outside. It’s going to be much more difficult to get rid of them.
SS: Did you face any particular obstacles in telling the story and conducting any additional research?
RP: No, again, because the research was done. Lizzie really met all the sides. She even met the last owner, who is still alive. He is an 83 year old white man and I know what he thinks, how angry he still is with the family. I know every single position of the players. So it was clear for me that I didn’t have to go there again. And I wanted to reserve the whole stage for the Reels family. Because the other part of the story, what is it? You’re going to ask the lawyers, what did you do? What did you not do? It’s another film. That’s not the film I want to make. I’ve seen that film already.
What I never saw is a Black family, in a story, able to tell its own story, without being forced. With their own words, you know? I did not correct them. I gave them the stage. That’s what I was aiming for. And the whole thing also is, films are not innocent. There is always ideology behind it. And American cinema is well known for projecting something that is a piece of the reality. It might anger you and create emotion, but at the end, you end up with a product, and then you can go on with your life. I try to make film that doesn’t let you go once you leave, because you just dealt with human beings, with people who could have been your parents, your brothers, your children. And that’s more difficult to just shake off.
So I try to make films that really reconnect you with who you are, your origin, your place in this country, your role in this country, your role in your community, and your responsibility. And then it’s your decision what you do with it. But you can’t say you didn’t know now.
SS: There’s one little detail in the film that I particularly love, specifically the portraits of the family members. It reminded me of the ones you’d find in aristocratic homes. Could you touch a little bit on that?
RP: Exactly. And that’s my role as a filmmaker, as an artist. How do I find the humanity of these people? How do I not use them, but give them their dignity? And making a portrait is for me the ultimate sign of respect. And you’re honoring them, and you’re bringing them into a space of history. Because a portrait is something that is valuable. It’s not just a photo, it’s a portrait. So I knew that it’s a way to instill that dignity and bring some poetry as well. And make them real people real characters, real owners of their own story. Thank you for having said that, because it’s not just a gimmick, it’s really part of the whole structure of making this film.
It anchors you. The same way I use the roots as a metaphor, the family trees, you know? It reinforced the whole feeling of being part of a community and giving you the responsibility, because you’re linked with each other.
SS: As you mentioned, your work forces us to confront the harsh realities of the world. How do you stay motivated to explore these despressing topics?
RP: The way I see life and my life and the life of other people, my question is always, “How come everybody’s not motivated?” We can’t go on with our lives being blinded all the time. Otherwise, they have won, they have succeeded in making a real consumer out of us. We are like the little birds that are waiting for the next Netflix thing, the next food, the next hamburger. And nothing else is happening. And for me, maybe it’s because I come from Haiti, I come from a country that fought for its independence. We know the price of democracy, we know the price of dictatorship, and the price of independence. And without Haiti, we might not even have the United States of America the way it is today. People have sacrificed, Haitians have been fighting as well in Savannah, with the army.
So I believe in those links, I believe in those traditions, and going elsewhere to Congo, to Europe, to all these places meeting and fighting with other people. To have solidarity, you know? So I grew up with that. I don’t know any other way to live. If you’re a citizen, that means you’re interested in the life of the city, wherever you are. Otherwise you’re just a consumer, and then you can say, capitalism has won. And then you can go to sleep and die in peace.
Silver Dollar Road is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Prime Video.