Raven Jackson started out as a poet, a background that is at the heart of her eloquent, imagistic first feature. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt presents the life of a Black woman in the rural South through elegantly composed vignettes. On paper, that approach sounds too precious to live. As the story follows Mack from her girlhood in the 1970s across several decades, the film has minimal dialogue and a narrative that offers fragments of her life in time-shifting episodes. But miraculously, all its elements come together. Jackson’s risky, beautifully realized film puts a pure artistic vision on screen.
Jackson has cited Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust as an influence, and, as in that groundbreaking 1991 film, each scene is so deliberately composed that it conveys a wealth of information and emotion. Jomo Fray’s lush cinematography, shot on 35 mm, grounds the story in the landscape of woods, river banks and dirt roads. The sounds of rainstorms, thunder claps and crickets are an integral part of the experience. Mack never goes far from home, and throughout the film the Black culture of the South also shapes the family story, with Mack’s mother, sister and grandmother powerful forces.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
The Bottom Line
A miracle of imagery and emotions.
The film moves in roughly chronological order overall, but also flashes ahead or back in time with the ease of memory. Even without a conventional narrative, though, All Dirt Roads creates the sense of an entire life. In early episodes, Mack is a wide-eyed child, played by Kaylee Nicole Johnson, learning how to fish with her father (Chris Chalk). Establishing the film’s style, we see close-ups of her hand in the water, then moving over the fish’s scales. Its mouth still moves after she catches it, and the girl is obviously reluctant to let it die, all without a word. In other episodes, she and her sister, Josie, silently ride in a car to their mother’s funeral, and in the back of their father’s pickup truck to return home. The setting and the little girls’ stillness tell us all we need to know. As a child Mack rides bikes on the dirt roads with her best friend, Wood, and as a young woman she kisses him.
From her teen years on, Mack is played by Charleen McClure, a friend of Jackson’s who had not acted professionally before, but who matches the other actors in conveying feelings without words. Sheila Atim (The Underground Railroad and The Woman King) plays Mack’s mother in a few vivid scenes, one putting on lipstick for a party, the other cradling her as a baby. Moses Ingram (Third Sister in Obi-Wan Kenobi) is a quiet but strong presence as Mack’s sister, Josie, whose supportive role in her sister’s life gradually becomes clear.
Jackson’s time shifts are always lucid. The similar hair, in two braids, tells us we are still looking at Mack, and the gold hoop earrings indicate that she is an older iteration. The camera often looks at its characters from the back, unmoving figures facing away from us. Body language says more than words here. When the adult Mack and Wood (Reginald Helm Jr.) meet again, he is a married father, she is on break from a job as a manager somewhere, and their faces alone reveal a history of pain, loss and love. When they embrace, Jackson lets the camera linger for a long stretch. The pace is leisurely, but that is not a euphemism for slow. The immersive style is absorbing, and after Wood leaves, we again see Mack from the back, her shoulders heaving in low sobs we can hear. Such scenes become moving, even when the events behind them are deliberately no more than sketched out.
Another important vignette shows Mack with her newborn daughter, with Josie at her hospital bedside. It takes a while to circle back to that scene and understand it better, and even then the circumstances might have been conveyed more fully. Mack’s crucial decision about her child is the rare instance where Jackson’s narrative is more murky than elliptical.
The film’s title is alluded to in an early scene, when Mack and her mother dig in a bank of clay dirt looking for nuggets to eat. As their grandmother later explains, her own mother taught her to do the same, a tradition that connects the women in the family to nature. The film itself never says that the custom of eating clay dirt goes back to West Africa, but it doesn’t have to. It’s enough to know that the grandmother is passing on something meaningful. In poetic fashion, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt Asks for interpretation, making ordinary explanations unnecessary.
While Jackson’s emotionally stirring film is always poetic, it is also accessible. One bit of evidence for that: It is being released by A24, a company not in the business of letting its films disappear down an artistic rabbit hole.
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