From the moment Raven Jackson’s transcendent feature debut, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, begins, its character’s legacy is sketched in the familiar. A young Black girl named Mack (Kaylee Nicole Johnson) is learning to fish with her father (Chris Chalk, When They See Us), trying to get enough to take home and slice up for a fish fry. At this moment, we patiently watch her hands move in the water, creating a bond with the environment she has grown up around, letting the dirty water guide her decision making as she calmly learns the skills that her father and others learned long before she was born. As this tradition is being passed down, we flash to their home, right at the kitchen table, where Mack’s mother Evelyn (Sheila Atim, The Underground Railroad and The Woman King) oversees her daughter preparing the fish she has caught for cooking. We never see the fish being severed, nor eaten, but rather the steady collection of time it takes to create something worth sharing with and for others. By displaying these moments, it sets off a chain of elegant, kaleidoscopic sequences fragmented and smashed together to craft one of the most nuanced, unconventional, poignant, personal pieces of art we’ve seen in some time.
We cut from these moments to memories of Mack’s childhood, and the freedom of her riding her bike, and playing with her friends in her small Mississippi town. Before you know it, we are whisked to the future, where Mack (played by Charleen McClure in the older scenes) is walking those same trails in her high school and even adulthood days, with friends, romantic interests and especially her sister Josie (Moses Ingram, The Queen’s Gambit and Obi-Wan Kenobi). These moments converge to express the shared happiness Mack finds through the formative times of her then limited time on this planet. In Jackson’s assured direction and Lee Chatametikool’s patient editing, the film is brought together by a bond of how one moment from the past connects to something much deeper that defines the future that is coming.
These moments of joy and innocence are cut short by images of a fire in Mack’s family home, and the unspoken pain of how a home, a place of comfort and solace, can easily be stripped away from her, as it can for many Black families during the 1970s, and leave with a sense of hopelessness. With this, it shifts to a memory of the house they once lived in, where her mother looked her best. As time goes on, when we lose something like a possession or a person, our minds think back to photographs or segments of a time when it all made sense, where it added up to something good. As her mother dances, and her father smiles as she sings an old love song on the radio, Mack gazes at the woman that made her, not knowing that sooner rather than later, she would be taken away from her, and forced to face a world without her in it.
There are no big scenes of extensive crying, and the mourning doesn’t last longer than a minute of screen time. Instead of theatrics, Jackson’s screenplay offers lessons for Mack and Josie to learn from in the form of her grandmother, as well as a community of elders and traditions, who show them the power of staying strong in a moment of deeply emotional, transformative pain in a young woman’s life. This is a bond formed in cultural traditions, brought together by prayer, hope, and love guiding a powerful hand through one’s darkest times. With this, the land, the people, and the family you have will never leave you, whether on this earth or in the collective memories we share.
At this same, we cut again to the future, where Mack is mature, rediscovering a love for the first time in a while that she has regretted for some time. The notion of not leaving with Wood (Reginald Helms Jr.), and the life she could’ve had with him, is all spoken in an extensive, dialogue free hug the two have that lingers to establish the pain in each other’s hearts, and the bond a once promising love had before their chances at romance faded away. This is mirrored with Mack becoming a mother of her own, with her sister by her side, as she embarks on the journey of motherhood as she hopes to be as strong as her mother once was. It then flashes to the most striking scene in the film, highlighting cinematographer Jomo Fray’s stellar 35mm lensing, of Evelyn holding Mack as an infant, rocking her in her arms. As she is standing in the middle of the frame, Jackson expertly demonstrates that the future carries on from the arms of one generation to the next, regardless of the murky, heartbreaking conditions that get us there. It is a message of profound hope and beauty coming together through the bond of mothers and their daughters.
In the dirt, the rain, the gusts of wind, and the foundational placement of songs throughout the film, Jackson creates an immaculate sense of world building built off the experiences she knew as a Black woman growing up in Tennessee. The same sense of lived in storytelling mixed with complete creative freedom found here in Jackson’s film is akin to Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun, which was also distributed by A24 and Pastel, with producers Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski attached. Much like that intimate parent/child drama, within this confident space, Jackson is able to dive fully into the emotional core of Mack and many who have stood in her shoes before her, processing her feelings in a way that isn’t loud or over expressive. We find comfort in the silence, in the places that we can’t leave, thus we find the necessary answers and levity to keep moving on. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is an astonishing achievement and showcases the perfect artistic balance of how to handle internal angst, trauma, and ancestral connections of unseen individuals whose stories are never told.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is screening in the U.S. Dramatic competition section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release the film theatrically.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute | Jaclyn Martinez