If I had to describe All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt in one word, it would be “lingering.”
The feature-length debut from filmmaker and poet Raven Jackson takes its time in all things. It fixates on quiet moments, sometimes for minutes on end. It pokes at the ways in which memories can surface long after we’ve experienced them. Finally, it stays in the mind long after you’ve seen it, even if you struggle with its languid pacing.
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What is All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt about?
Sheila Atim in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.”
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt transports us to Mississippi in the 1970s and 1980s, where a young Black woman named Mackenzie — Mack for short — comes of age. Four actors play Mack across the span of her life: Mylee Shannon is Mack as a toddler, Kaylee Nicole Johnson is adolescent Mack, Charleen McClure is Mack from her late teens to her thirties, and Zainab Jah is a somewhat older Mack. The film weaves between these four life stages but mostly focuses on those embodied by Johnson and McClure.
Mack’s life unfurls before us in a series of nonlinear vignettes. She goes fishing with her father, Isaiah (Chris Chalk), and observes her mother, Evelyn (Sheila Atim), as she applies lipstick. She finds first love, only to lose it. She endures grief, becomes a mother herself, and remains steadfastly connected to her family. Her story is almost entirely devoid of dialogue — instead, Jackson finds meaning in silence and sensory experiences.
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All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is a deeply sensory film.
Sheila Atim and Kaylee Nicole Johnson in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.”
With such an evocative title, it’s no surprise that All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt immerses itself in the senses. Lush soundscapes of chirping insects and falling rain envelop you in the muggy heat of Mississippi. The film’s very first image is an extended shot of young Mack running a finger over a fresh-caught fish, taking in every ridge of its scales. Not long after, she’ll dip her hands in the river mud and squeeze until it drips through her fingers.
Based on these opening scenes alone, you can tell that All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is a film of textures. Jackson and cinematographer Jomo Fray are fascinated by how characters tangibly interact with their environment, focusing on bare feet treading over grass and hands digging through dirt. To watch these scenes is to feel the ghost of mud and grass on your own skin, to feel more aware of your own body in space overall.
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The environment surrounding Mack is not just a place, but a deep-rooted part of her family’s lives and culture. As Mack’s Grandma Betty (Jannie Hampton) tells Mack and her sister, Josie (Moses Ingram), they’re all made of dirt and water. Repeated shots of rivers and rain, of mud and dry clay emphasize this granule of wisdom passed from generation to generation.
These all crystallize in the film’s exploration of the practice of geophagia, or eating earth. Geophagia is an old tradition, one that came to the United States from Africa through the transatlantic slave trade. The practice continues today, primarily in the south, and in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, we see that it is especially meaningful to Mack and other Black women in her family. When she or other characters eat clay dirt, it feels like a way to connect to those who came before, be they mothers, grandmothers, or ancestors even further back in the family line.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is an unconventional meditation on memory.
Charleen McClure in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.”
Jackson’s focus on memory and family connections is supported by the film’s hazy, dreamlike quality. The narrative flits from scene to scene, sometimes crossing decades in the process. Yet even if these moments take place years apart, Jackson manages to find the strange and beautiful ways in which they’re related. In one scene, a pregnant Mack lies in her bathtub — in the next, we see Evelyn bathing Mack as a toddler in the very same tub. There’s a circularity to it all, as if Jackson is eschewing linear time itself.
This slower, circular pacing allows for some thematically resonant parallels between stages in Mack’s life, but it can also prove challenging — even frustrating, at times. Beyond one scene where an older Mack (Jah) reflects by the river, there are few anchor points in the present that offer context for the memories Mack is processing. There is little sense of build-up in this film, only of events simply happening and then moving on. This is not to say these events happen in a vacuum: Mack’s memories are always in conversation with themselves. However, these conversations don’t necessarily have much to say. They simply exist.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt also struggles with its relationship to silence. Scenes that start out naturally quiet, like a melancholy parting hug between Mack and her ex-boyfriend, Wood (Reginald Helms Jr.), stretch on to the point of strangeness, bogged down by a continued silence that doesn’t always feel earned. In the aforementioned scene, the hug itself lasts for around five minutes, its original intimacy slowly devolving into grating repetition. When the film’s dialogue does come, it is both naturalistic and deeply evocative, even more than the lengthy silences that take up most of the film. If only the characters had more chances to really dig into a spoken scene.
While Jackson’s experimentation with narrative structure and rhythm sometimes falters, the overall beauty and deeply felt emotion of All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt are undeniable. With her feature-length debut, Jackson has crafted a sensitive coming-of-age film, one that doubles as a hyper-specific portrait of the woods and fields and rivers that shaped Mack and her whole family. After all, the truest scenes here are always those shared between humans and nature: Mack and her father fishing in a muddy riverbed, Mack and her daughter letting rainwater trickle down their arms, Mack’s grandmother telling Mack and Josie about clay dirt eating. In these moments, Jackson and the film’s magic truly come together, making for a perfect storm of memory, family, and the places that shape us.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt opens in theaters Nov. 3.
UPDATE: Oct. 31, 2023, 1:40 p.m. EDT All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt was reviewed out of the New York Film Festival; the movie opens in theaters Nov. 3.