Cars passing by
Nobody won’t give me a ride
I’ve been walkin’ and walkin’,
Lord you know I’m tired
Big Boy Henry’s “Walkin’ Night & Day,” recorded with Music Maker, tells the story of a purgatorial walk down a friendless road. So it’s no wonder Oscar nominated documentarian Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro, Exterminate All The Brutes) choose to feature the song in his new film, Silver Dollar Road. It fits. What’s more, Big Boy Henry was born and raised in Beaufort, NC, where Peck’s saga of racial dispossession and the persistence of the color line takes place.
So over beautiful drone shots of Carteret County, its tidelands and the film’s titular Silver Dollar Road itself, the movie’s establishing shots are scored by Henry’s plaintive Piedmont blues. As you might expect, it’s a real point of pride for us to have a Music Maker artist soundtrack a film of such importance. As our co-founder Tim Duffy, the man who helped “Walkin’ Night & Day” come-into-being states: “It’s amazing that just behind a track recorded by Alan Lomax was a recording I made of Big Boy Henry. It was perfect, & made me realize how timeless the work we do can be.”
Anyone who’s seen a Peck film knows that they can be unflinching in their depictions of racial terror, de jure expropriation, and all the ways in which physical and institutional violence are wielded to keep this country unequal. Woody Guthrie once sang “some will rob you with a six-gun / and some with a fountain pen,” and according to Silver Dollar Road, not as much has changed since the 1930s as we might like to believe. The film tells the story of the Reels family who once owned a stretch of waterside property and surrounding forest land near Beaufort. As the story of the film develops, viewers hear first hand from the Reels how sabotage (e.g., a blown up boat), shady contracting done under false pretenses, and even the dubious legal enforcement of unjust laws have been used to take all the family’s land away.
Many of the Reels (as Big Boy Henry himself was), are fishermen. Understandably, then, the dispossession of their waterfront property has severely damaged their ability to make a living. The beaches and the boats they took pride in for decades stripped away, severe psychic trauma ensues for many of the family members, and two of the brothers are even eventually imprisoned for trespassing on land that had been in their family for generations. This is land that they owned dating back to the end of Reconstruction.
Silver Dollar Road makes for bracing, but necessary viewing: it teaches a side of history that is still often sugarcoated in the mass media. The film often rhymes with the sentiments of theorist Frank B. Wilderson III, the scholar most associated with the concept “afropessimism.” In a nutshell, Wilderson argues that black life in America will never escape the conditions established by chattel slavery, and that true racial equality might even be impossible in a country founded on the “social death” of non-white life. As one Reels family member laments: it’s often still “slaving time” in America, suggesting that maybe only the mechanisms of oppression have switched up, not been done away with entirely.
Whether or not we agree with this extreme take or not is besides the point. Silver Dollar Road presents an argument about America that must be grappled with if we are going to understand the present. And the movie’s story, of a dark racial and economic history, is just one part of its tale. There is the film’s soundtrack, there is Big Boy Henry, and there is “Walkin’ Night & Day.” The sound of the song embodies a spirit that cannot be crushed. No matter how much Big Boy hurts, he keeps walkin’. No matter how long he goes down the road feeling bad, he keeps it moving. And no matter how many cars coldly pass him by, he stays at it. This is not racial utopianism. But it is a testament to the endurance of black life, and a rejection of nihilism. “Walkin’ Night & Day” doesn’t pretend to solve the economic, political and racial problems Silver Dollar Road pinpoints. All it does is offer a glimmer of something in black life and black culture, which is American culture, that cannot be killed.