The Shame and Pain of Losing Your Land Without Even Knowing It

The Shame and Pain of Losing Your Land Without Even Knowing It

There was a time, not so long ago, when settler colonialism, manifest destiny, and the Catholic Church’s evolving rationale for enslavement, genocide, and land theft were not associated with a gripping four-part docuseries featuring Josh Hartnett, an actor of the corn-fed American heartthrob variety. But that was before Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s 2020 Exterminate All the Brutes

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There was a time when the searing, uncompleted last book of James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, was known to few but the most committed Baldwin acolytes. But that was before Peck’s 2016 Oscar-nominated, BAFTA Award-winning film of the same name interspersed bits of the text with Baldwin’s prescient ideas about race in America expressed on 1960s nighttime talk show TV.

In a new film, Silver Dollar Road, Peck – a longtime documentarian, scripted filmmaker, and auteur of everything in between – turns his attention to the issue of lost heirs’ property

Most Americans – by one recent estimate, 67% – do not have a will. Superstitions about preparing for death, discomfort with the topic, distrust in the legal system, and, of course, the cost leave many people without an expressed and formal plan for their assets after they die. If a person dies with no will and owns real estate – the single most valuable asset held by most Americans – the law automatically divides ownership between close relatives. But for those survivors, it can be difficult to obtain legal documents verifying ownership, creating the legally perilous state known as heirs’ property. In most states, those in the legal know can become the sole owners of heirs’ property after paying one of the dead person’s relatives little to nothing. In many cases, the survivors don’t even know they have lost ownership until the new owner shows up with their own plans.

Read More: HBO’s Exterminate the Brutes Is a Radical Masterpiece About White Supremacy, Violence, and the History of the West

Since 2010, changes in the law have made it harder to gobble up heirs’ property in 18 states and the District of Columbia. But many entirely legal options remain. In fact, as many as 16 million acres of agricultural heirs’ property have been lost over the last century, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate. Additional land has been lost in cities, particularly in gentrifying communities. Between 1920 and 1997 Black families lost as much as $359 million in farmland, generational wealth that could have been passed on had there not been some type of forced sale or seizure, including lost heirs’ property, according to an estimate produced by the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers’ Land Loss Prevention Project. Heirs’ property loss is an ongoing problem more intensely concentrated among Black families, especially in the South, Latino families in the Southwest, indigenous families living on reservations or in Southern states, and low-income white families in Appalachia and parts of the South. In other words, the people who can least afford to lose anything can and in some cases have been pushed out of the most valuable thing they will ever own.  

Silver Dollar Road based, in part, on reporting by ProPublica’s Lizzie Presser, tells the tale of the Reels, a Black North Carolina family attempting to hold on to valuable coastal property first purchased by an ancestor, one generation out from slavery. In 2019, Presser found that after a judge sentenced two members of the Reels family, Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, to indeterminate jail time for defying a court order to vacate the land, by then heirs’ property, the men wound up serving what is believed to be the longest ever term for civil contempt in U.S. history: eight years in a county jail. Silver Dollar Road premiered in select theaters Oct. 13 and will begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. Oct. 19. What follows is a conversation with Peck, edited for clarity and length, about the film, the issue of heirs’ property, the roots of American capitalism, and what propels his work.

Why take on this kind of complicated, legally themed issue? 

Well, I was approached by Amazon, ProPublica, and JuVee Productions. I knew the issue. And the story was so clear and enraging I thought not only could I do it, but I should do it. I also wanted to make a different film on that subject and not just take the Reels or a family’s story and then everybody’s going to cry. Everybody’s going to be angry and after that nothing. 

For me, a film is a movement. A film is the beginning of something, not the end. I’m doing another film on consumption. But I don’t want my films to be another form of consumption. You eat it and forget about it. I came to filmmaking through politics, and my comprehension of being a citizen is you have to engage. This project in particular was a way for me to question and put on the table the core problems of this country. Land is one of the most central. 

You see land as one of America’s core problems. Why?

How far back do you want to go? This particular land, which before Europeans came and invaded, was a land that indigenous people saw as something they were given, that they were supposed to take care of. Private property is a concept that came with the Europeans. Talking about privilege, that is a major example. The idea that you could come anywhere on the planet and say, “I own this. Oh, I discovered it.” 

So the first stealing of land basically came through the European colonization and the killing and genocide of indigenous Americans, and then you brought other people that you kidnap and forced them to work on that land. And then you create a new entity called the United States of America for which all the founding fathers were basically real estate men [major property owners]. The big discovery is that land, by making it a commodity, you could buy, sell it, use it as collateral the same way you use Black bodies as collateral. So it’s a whole system. And this film is not just a story about the Reels family. It’s our history, the history of this country, it is in the DNA.

Read More: Inside Barbados’ Historic Push for Slavery Reparations

Land is also what gives you, eventually, access to wealth and a wealth that you can continue to give to your descendants. Some populations did not have access to that potential wealth. When they had access, they were often pushed out violently and through corruption, through legal means or illegal legal means.

If you take the 19th century, or mid-19th century, most countries were producing cotton, at more or less at the same level – India, China, parts of Europe, the United States. Then one big thing happens right away when Haiti allows the U.S. to acquire land through the big sale, the Louisiana Purchase – because they lost the war in Haiti, France was obliged to sell it. Then you have basically doubled the size of this country. So it’s the core of the whole next century. Everything flows from that. Kill more indigenous [people]. Get more land. Get more enslaved [people]. Make more money. And create [or adopt] all the instruments of capital – mortgages, credit, etc. The whole wealth of the western world came from that. It’s not intelligence. It’s war. It’s genocide. It’s theft. That’s the core. And I will never be too tired to tell it all again. 

Even within that history, I think heirs’ property loss is somewhat obscure. How did it first come to your attention?

I didn’t know much of the term, but I knew that it is a problem for Black families, minority families, people that have not been well treated by the justice system. They tend to keep their problems to themselves, not to trust that system, for good reason. We have the same story in Haiti, where peasants prefer not to have anything to do with the state. They have stories and stories where they were deprived of their own goods and their own property. The state is always on the side of more powerful people. So what these people do is say OK, when I die, I don’t need to make a will and involve the state and its courts because automatically all my heirs will benefit and that will protect the property. But in fact, it is the contrary because the legal system makes that ownership, if not documented a certain way, even more fragile. Because if you don’t have a will, that means you don’t have a clear title. It’s easy to puncture that [ownership]. And then worse, without a clear title, you don’t have access to bank loans, to credit, to the value of the land. You’re not eligible to get state help, you don’t get, in the case of the United States, FEMA [aid after a disaster], or insurance. After that, you can’t rebuild. Basically, instead of growing whatever you have, it is becoming more insecure. 

And it works for a while, like the Reels family, you could say they were on an island basically. They have everything they need. They work every day. They go to sea. They fish. They have their boats, their dock. Then the system came crashing down. 

Now that you’ve mentioned it, you’ve reminded me of something that I wondered watching the film, reading the story: will people take away an understanding of how the system can crush people with very little power? Or will people comfort themselves with the idea this only happens because someone failed to get a will? 

That’s why I say the film, for me, is the beginning. Because what I have now is a big microphone. That’s why I make sure all this other information comes out as well. Because I met people who just realized through the film that they have a traumatic story in their own family. I have seen grownup Black men cry. They just said, “Oh my God. Now I understand why my grandfather didn’t want to talk about what happened.” How many families just let it go because it was too much, 10, 20 years, 30 years of fighting? It’s traumatic. So a lot of people, we try to erase it. You don’t tell your children about it. There’s pain and there is shame.

Read More: I Am Not Your Negro Shows How Far We Only Think We’ve Come

I did a screening and I said, “All of you here, white or Black, I’m sure each one of you have such a story about land, depending on how far back you go. The story of losing land. Maybe a few of you benefited from that, but there is a land story, either stolen or lost.” For Black people it is, most of the time, a story of loss. 

The same way, after Exterminate All the Brutes, I had audiences both Black and white come up and say to me, “What do we do?” “What can we do?” And to that I said, well, now it’s your story. What you cannot continue to say is that I’m innocent, I don’t know about this. Now you know. 

What are the more common questions that people ask you after watching Silver Dollar Road?

I would say, the most common reaction is anger. 


Yeah, because this topic is so visceral. The injustice, of course, experienced by those two men. Imagine eight years of prison or jail for something you don’t feel that you did or believe is wrong, because you refuse to be pushed off your land.

They didn’t even know for how long they would be there, in jail. It was a situation of indefinite detention that their family, women in this family, struggled and organized to end. Consider psychologically what it means. When you know, OK, eight years, I have to be here, you can say, I’m gonna spend my time this way or that way, so that I can survive, right? But these two men didn’t know when any of this would end. 

Why was it important to capture the human experience of this legal issue, heirs’ property, in this case taken to an unprecedented extreme? 

Because when I think about why I’m doing this profession, it is a way for me to engage with the society, to engage against injustice, to engage against a lot of things that I feel should not have happened. 

My motto is don’t be ignorant of your own history. Because, if you don’t do your homework, you’re not supposed to come and complain. You’re not supposed to just come and say Trump is an a–hole Do your homework. How did Trump happen? Why was it possible? What else was going on? And it’s not enough to say, I am Black and you’re racist against me. You need to understand why. You may be Black and a victim of racism and at the same time be Black bourgeois. And I have to ask you, are you asking yourself, do you fight the system, or are you fighting for your own Black bourgeois stuff?

We are in a society now where everybody wants it black or white. Simple. The summary. No. Many issues, most issues, are galactic. 

Two things can exist at the same time. You just have to show their relationship and how they influence each other and what came first and the complexity. 

In America specifically, we are always looking for the hero. There are no heroes. There are people that, at some time of their life, did something great and then the next time they make a mistake, and so you have to be able to assess both. It’s important to understand the whole context.

But that’s the mistake we have been doing the last 40, 50 years: Give me the result. No, no, I don’t need the whole explanation. Should I trust him? Or is he a good guy, or not? 

I think a lot of people like documentaries because when done well they take their time and cover a broader bit of the landscape, go back further, go into a topic more deeply. Are you saying there’s pressure not to do that?

In films today, they like the first two, three minutes to tell you the whole thing in a nutshell, right? I said no. Because it takes me time to understand why things are like this. Especially for a film about Black people. And because the majority of the audience is white, and two people go to jail, you need to put that audience in a position where they can know from the get-go, are these people victims or criminals? I mean, I’m caricaturing here. But if I do that, you will not realize that those people are real people. I need you to come and meet them first. What are their stories? They were happy. They had a beach. Their own place, a domain. There was a life between and before the [legal] fight. 

I understand why the demand was there, but I wanted to make a film where a Black audience will feel at ease.

Are you saying the other way, telling the whole thing in the first three minutes, is a way of telling stories that puts other audiences at ease? 

That has become the convention, nobody or not everybody questions that. By the way, it’s not just the journalistic film. Newspapers started to enforce this too. We have educated the people to read, watch, and listen like this. Make it short. Make it with images. Make it move. Go direct because we don’t want the audience to skip the film, the story, because it’s too slow, to go and pick another story that’s easier, more colorful. That’s the obsession. You know, the click. 

That demand has consequences. We are flattening people and turning serious things into consumer goods. You are not there to ask questions, to bring doubt. 

I do realize there are things I can do now because I’m an older director. And I don’t do films where I don’t have the freedom, the final edit. But I’m afraid for younger directors because a lot didn’t learn the trade. They came from school to Netflix. They didn’t do their homework. And they don’t even know how it was before. And the industry, unfortunately, didn’t learn either. They think because they hire one Black executive things are fine. No. Those are alibis. They have zero power. Even independent of the race issues, people known as documentary veterans don’t have the power to do anything, at the end of the day, other than what Wall Street will react to. It’s a sad thing. Sometimes even algorithms are used for documentaries. 

We are being formatted to sell better. There’s this idea that we can do the same thing for apples or oranges or whatever for cultural expression. And telling Black stories under those conditions can be even worse, more complicated. 

What were some of the complicated things you had the freedom to include in this film? 

I chose to focus on two women because they were actually the ones doing the job, fighting for this land and for the two men’s freedom. They are the matriarchs and chroniclers. They are strong. They are funny, and they are human and human to a point where someone said, “You know, sometimes I’m depressed.” For a Black woman to say that – you know, our relationship with [talking about] mental illness – and even Melvin and Licurtis saying I am depressed was remarkable, powerful. So you hear directly people that most people think are dumb, having the authority to tell their story and you see the way we film them that they know what they are saying. They have the power to tell it. These people are normal human beings like you and me. And that was important to me to have that aspect. And it was important for me that the film doesn’t end with the two brothers coming out [of jail], the victory. That’s what the American audience loves, the happy ending. That’s what they are educated to seek. 

So, why did you decide to reject the happy ending? 

Because that would define those people with tragic trauma. Right? They are more than that. Life goes on. They are survivors. You can’t tell them, “Oh, now you’re out, all your problems are finished.” That’s not really the truth. I’m interested in the truth, the complicated truth. 

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