Based on the ProPublica article, the documentary recounts the riveting narrative of the Reels family, led by the matriarch fondly known as “Mamie.” Ever since the days following emancipation, the Reels family dedicated themselves to farming, fishing, and painstakingly forging a sustainable existence upon their expansive parcel of land nestled along the coastal reaches of North Carolina’s Silver Dollar Road. With remarkable foresight, Mamie’s great grandfather acquired this precious 65-acre plot during the zenith of Black land ownership in America—the vibrant era of Reconstruction—when African Americans proudly possessed a staggering 15 million acres in the South.
During the early 1900s, the Reels family accomplished a remarkable feat, establishing the sole beach in the county that welcomed Black families and hosting lively events in a nearby dance hall. However, one fateful day, Mamie, alongside her brothers Melvin and Licurtis, made a startling discovery—an inconvenient truth that shattered their world. Legally, their cherished land belonged to an unscrupulous developer. The roots of this ownership quandary took hold in the 1970s, when Mitchell—Mamie, Melvin, and Licurtis’ grandfather—passed away without a will. Mitchell’s last wish was for his children to safeguard the land within the confines of their family. Thus, the farm became ensnared in the intricate web of “heirs’ property,” a term used to describe land passed down without a will, where each child inherits an interest, akin to holding shares in a company.
Sadly, the perceived strength of “heirs’ property” belied a harsh reality—the Reels family’s ownership became tenuous. Owners of such ancestral holdings face an array of legal perils, ranging from forced sales to onerous tax burdens. In the late 1970s, Melvin and Licurtis’ estranged uncle exploited the complexities of heirs’ property laws, clandestinely selling the land to a white real estate developer without the family’s consent. Determined to reclaim what was rightfully theirs, Melvin and Licurtis staunchly refused to relinquish the property. Their unwavering stance led to their wrongful conviction for civil contempt in 2011, resulting in the harshest sentence ever issued for such an offense in North Carolina—eight long years behind bars. Finally released in 2019, Mamie, Melvin, and Licurtis continue their arduous struggle to reclaim the land that was unjustly ripped from their ancestral embrace.