The documentary The Smell of Money shines a light on environmental racism in North Carolina, telling an important story in gripping, melancholic fashion.
“Eastern North Carolina is the dumping grounds for North Carolina. We always say, ‘Whatever white people don’t want in their backyards, come to Eastern North Carolina and we’ll show it to you, because it’s here,’ says Naeema Muhammed, a member of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, interviewed for the new documentary The Smell of Money. The film, from Shawn Bannon, tackles the environmental impact and racism of the Hog farming industry in North Carolina, with fervor, sadness, and a clarity of purpose.
From the 1970s onwards, North Carolina has become one of the leading providers of pork products, not just for the United State but the entire world, with about 10 million pigs kept in large industrial plants along the rural countryside. In North Carolina, pigs outnumber the people 30 to 1. Now, 10 million pigs produce a lot of waste, billions and billions of gallons in a single year. If left inside the building the waste produces a methane gas which is fatal to the hogs, and so it is drained into what is referred to as a lagoon, but is really a giant cesspool, or sprayed onto the fields to be used as fertilizer by a machine which resembles a sprinkler.
Those who live nearby a hog farm describe the sensation of being sprayed by fecal matter, and having to clean it off of their home and vehicle. The smell of the lagoons is so pungent that many are unable to open their windows or sit in their backyard. North Carolina residents have reported health effects such as asthma, anemia, kidney disease, and infections due to the poor conditions.
The Smell of Money charts the efforts of rural North Carolina residents to improve their quality of life, fighting for their right to dignity, health, pure water, and clean air free from the stench of pig excrement. Throughout the documentary, we meet activists, nurses, public health officials, and local residents living on land that has been in their family for generations who are going up against Goliath-esque businesses, like Smithfield Foods the provider for Nathan’s Hot Dogs, which bears the slogan, “Great Food. Responsibly,” and rallying for the attention of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).
A standard approach of documentarians is to find a main character, one person they can follow around and use to epitomize the documentary’s subject. The Smell of Money goes for a more ensemble, kaleidoscopic approach, which the filmmakers use to illustrate the enormity of the problem, and also, how many people are working for change.
Persuasively, The Smell of Money makes the case that the environmental impact of hog farming has only been allowed because it occurs in an area of North Carolina predominantly inhabited by people of color – Black, Latinx, and Hispanic. According to The Smell of Money, the callousness with which the land in North Carolina has been treated is only allowed because of greed and the dehumanization of the impoverished and minority groups, and by the end of the film it’s very hard to argue against that.
One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is its tone and attitude toward its story of racism and injustice. The Smell of Money moves along with a profound sense of sadness, almost hopelessness. It convinces the viewer of the severity of the situation, but not of the possibility of a solution. Perhaps corporate greed and racism are too great of an enemy.
That is not to say that the viewer will not feel anger after finishing The Smell of Money. The filmmaking is perhaps a little too neat to stir up righteous fury, but it contains passion for the subject and is able to pass that onto the viewer. One of the virtues of the documentary comes from providing a window into a part of the world different from your own, and The Smell of Money does so without feeling didactic, finger-wagging, or exploitative. What The Smell of Money lacks in a sharp bite, it makes up for in a gripping, important story. At the very least it will make you take a second look at the labels of any pork products.
The Smell of Money will be released on digital and on demand on December 12, 2023.