SILVER DOLLAR ROAD -- Raoul Peck's Latest Documentary Undermines Its Essential Story With an Uneven Approach
Review by Sean Boelman
Silver Dollar Road has everything it would have taken to be one of the top documentaries of the year — an incredible story, an acclaimed director, and themes that are on the top of the public’s consciousness. Yet, Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) struggles to cut to the heart of this story in a way that is satisfying and engaging, all too often settling for maudlin sentimentality over urgency.
Based on the article “Kicked Off the Land” by Lizzie Presser, the documentary tells the story of a family who battles to save their family’s land from land developers after they are targeted for harassment in an attempt to pressure them to move. What we see is an incredibly shocking story told through the lens of a family drama, and it doesn’t effectively contextualize this small story within its greater context.
The biggest issue with Silver Dollar Road is that Peck seemingly can’t settle on the tone he hopes to convey. Is this story supposed to be a tragic one, of a family whose plight is indicative of a massive issue in our society? Or is it a story of triumph by figures who have pushed back against authority to fight for their rights? While these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, Peck is unable to find the right mix of them to be stirring.
There are several moments in which the subjects of the film get very passionate, and unfortunately, it is in these moments of anger that it is hardest to take the movie seriously. In many of the more stressful moments of the story, their reactions feel almost performative. That’s not to belittle their experience — as their anger is absolutely justified — but it often feels like they are beating a dead horse.
The more interesting aspects of the film are those which are less overtly political, yet still have subtle undertones of anger. One of the most powerful moments deals not with the generation who had been jailed for trying to save their land, but the younger generation, who raps about the effects this oppression has on them and their family. Sequences like this pose interesting questions about the core themes of legacy and systemic racism that has persisted through generations.
The cinematography by Katie Campbell and Mayeta Clark is great, if you’re approaching it from an aesthetic sense. The shots of the North Carolina waterfront are stunning. However, the documentary’s purpose is not to show off the land, but to capture this emotional battle over it. Thus, one could argue that the glossy cinematography and sweeping, sentimental score by Alexei Aigui undermine the severity of the issue.
Other parts of the movie feel shockingly amateur — especially from a filmmaker as prolific as Peck. There are some graphics and editing choices made in the film that you would expect to see in a PBS documentary, not one by an Academy Award nominee with the backing of a major streaming service.
Silver Dollar Road is a movie that’s hard to take seriously, which is a shame, considering the potential this story had to expose injustices to which our society often turns a blind eye. Still, if the only thing that comes out of this documentary is that it inspires viewers to read more deeply into this situation and Presser’s reporting, it will have succeeded.
Silver Dollar Road hits theaters on October 13 and streams on Prime Video beginning October 20.