Raven Jackson’s uber-naturalist debut All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt shows the director has great promise, though it can be difficult to find your bearings.
The first thing to know about All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, the debut feature from Raven Jackson, is that it is the saga of a Black woman across three different eras of her life. The film begins in the 1970s, and we follow Mackenzie (Kaylee Nicole Johnson as a child, Charleen McClure as a young adult, and Zainab Jah as an elder) as she grows up in Mississippi. Along the way, Mack copes with the death of her mother Evelyn (Sheila Atim), tearfully reunites with childhood friend Wood (Preston McDowell, then Reginald Helms Jr.), becomes pregnant and then makes a decision that has far-reaching consequences. All while keeping close to father Isaiah (Chris Chalk) and sister Josie (Moses Ingram, with Jayah Henry as the younger version).
The second thing to know is that you might find it difficult to find your bearings whilst watching the film. This story chronicling three eras of a Black protagonist sounds similar to Moonlight – Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski are producers under their Pastel banner – yet it darts around a lot. And scenes only have a few lines of dialogue in the name of uber-naturalism. It is easy, then, to be more than a little disappointed with the film, and its deliberate pacing will not be for everyone. However, All Dirt Roads improves a fair amount once it establishes its pattern, with Jackson’s origins as a poet shown through some of her imagery. As does her own experience growing up in the South (specifically Tennessee, where part of it was shot).
With Julie Dash’s seminal Daughters of the Dust cited as an influence, Jackson depicts the outdoors of rural Mississippi in a natural and almost spellbinding way. The first scene depicts Mack fishing with her father, and we see her feel the scales of a catfish she places back in the river. We also hear the slow clicking of the fishing rod as her father teaches her. “Not too quick,” Isaiah says. That instruction is the perfect summarisation of this film’s style.
The handheld, 35mm camerawork from Jomo Fray produces some Terrence Malick-style shots whilst ingraining and immersing itself with Mack from the back or the side. That overall sense of proximity continues with close-ups of what becomes a major motif: hands. Hands that dig into the riverbed and rub the sludge against their fingers. Hands that feel surfaces, touch things and interlock with other hands. The focus on hands and the power of touch enforces a connection not just to each other but to the Earth you inherit from your ancestors, down to the clay eaten in one scene. A tradition traced back to West Africa, it is the act that most likely gives All Dirt Roads its title.
At the same time, the film is experimentally picking at its narrative with non-linear editing by Lee Chatametikool, who has worked with Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Moreover, the score by Sasha Gordon and Victor Magro is so emotionally soothing you wish there were more of it. Then again, it is clear the only soundtrack Jackson needs comes from outside sounds – from birds and insects trilling to rain pattering down with force.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt could have done with more plot, character, and more of an attempt at grounding Mack within this swirlingly poetic world Jackson has created. But honestly, it might have taken away from its two most unique aspects: its faint touch and its avant-garde approach to birth, death and emotion. It is a film of pensive thought highlighting how knowledge is passed down through communities and generations. It is scattered, but so are memories sometimes. “I like the rain,” says Mack at a critical point. “It doesn’t end or begin. Just changes form.” It could become snow or form a river and wash everything away. As the details of Mack’s life are gradually revealed, Jackson lets the film’s holistic spirit wash over you without any guidance or explication.
It may not leave you enthralled, but All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt shows the director has great promise, especially visually. Maybe from this, a great river of filmmaking will form in the future.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt will be screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival on 13-15 October and will be released in US theaters on November 3, 2023.