The Smell of Money (2022) Movie Review: You are hungry. And suddenly, you have this craving for pork. While making or ordering pork dishes, do you ever wonder what price some people are paying for it? Well, the price was a hell of a lot for the North Carolina people. Director Shawn Bennon, along with his screenwriter Jamie Berger, tells a story that is necessary and, most times, even alarming, to say the least. Imagine Todd Haynes’s “Dark Waters,” which showcased how a big corporate fuck-up literally bankrupted a company. It told the story of DuPont contaminating a town with their wastage and lawyer Robert Billot’s fight against them.
In “The Smell of Money”, North Carolina residents Elsie Herring and Rene Miller – two of the most striking figures who become vocal about the environmental racism that was put upon them for decades by Smithfield, the company that had a hog farming operation in the neighborhood. Both of the women refused to move from the land since both were living in the land long before Smithfield even came into existence, with their forefathers establishing their residents in North Carolina, and the lands are rightfully theirs to live.
“The Smell of Money” opens by showing us the North Carolina of 1999, where through an archive interview, Elsie Herring tells the audience about how she ended up in North Carolina, how long they have been living in that place, and how Smithfield started their operations since 1993 and started spraying hog wastewater on the neighboring fields without caring about the consequences. Since they began their operations, a large amount of power was bequeathed to them, and Smithfield started abusing that left, right, and center.
The involvement of political figures in their operations made them even more powerful, as citizens feared political blowback for going against them. The power Smithfield holds is one of the significant driving themes of the documentary, as it is shown that the political connections made them beyond reproach. Smithfield has come under harsh criticism from the public for producing and storing untreated fecal matter from pigs and storing them in what they call “lagoons,” which are large area ponds.
In a four-year period in the 1990s, 4.7 million gallons of hog feces were released into North Carolina’s rivers. Workers and residents near Smithfield plants reported health problems and complained about the issue. The open-air lagoons emitted a smell and caused several North Carolina residents’ ill health, resulting in a lawsuit in 2017.
Along with Elsie Herring and Rene Miller, several key figures in the documentary, including Larry Baldwin and Rick Dove of the Waterkeeper Alliance, continuously took samples from the area and videographed them, showing algae blooms and the prevalence of Pfiesteria disease on fish populations caused by runoff from the manure ponds (or as the supporters of Smithfields call them, “lagoons”).
Also appearing in “The Smell of Money” is Don Webb, who became an environmental activist after being in the business of raising hogs. The rising consequences that impacted his neighbors during his time of hog farming made him seriously aware of the issue, and he subsequently quit hog farming to support their cause. What the documentary explores through its use of archives and real footage is the determined and fierce battle against a corporation that doesn’t even care about its surroundings.
The documentary narrative is particularly compelling when they conduct interviews with the residents and the investigators. However, the themes of environmental racism are just briefly touched upon. The institutionalized racism issue in America forms the core of the plot of “The Smell of Money,” although sadly, it does not go deep enough to create more impact. The use of news headlines to add a bit of tone to the issue at hand doesn’t quite land either, nor does the grim shadow of sadness and casual handling of the subject matter.
The direction, however, is crisp, and the juxtaposition of the incidents plays out pretty well. Shawn Bennon did have a good intention of making this documentary and getting it out in the world for the people to see. and also skilfully portrays the struggles of the two residents who passed away during the shoot, creating a strong emotional resonance. In the end, “The Smell of Money,” though made with good intentions, becomes a little too generic by following the documentary playbook too closely and playing it safe. But it will undoubtedly influence people to fight for what is right, which is their right to good health.