Hands buried in river mud, hands washing in the sink, hands holding babies, hands holding lovers, sisters’ hands clasped tightly, there is an exquisite focus on hands in artist and filmmaker Raven Jackson’s feature directorial debut, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.
The film is lazily paced, as if weighted by the hot Mississippi air suggested by sweaty foreheads and hands waving fans in church; the narrative disjointed and incomplete, a cinematic translation of a person’s own imperfect memory. The protagonist—or, perhaps, the memorialist—is Mack, played as a child by Kaylee Nicole Johnson, as a young adult by Charleen McClure, and as a grown woman by Zainab Jah. The film begins with kid Mack learning to catch catfish with her father, Isaiah (Chris Chalk), and to clean them with her mother, Evelyn (the inimitable Sheila Atim).
The film skips backwards and forwards through time, Mack and her sister, Josie, discernable by the birthmark on Josie’s eye and their individual preferences for styling their hair. (Josie is played by the duo of Moses Ingram and Jayah Henry.) But there is deliberately little separation of the sisters on screen, their intimacy and bond depicted through the closeness of their bodies as they hug, play, comfort. The memories are Mack’s, but Josie is a central figure, the constant throughout Mack’s life that sees their grandmother, their parents, Mack’s first love, fade from view over time and in her recollections.
Jackson’s work is gorgeously evocative of time and place. You can practically feel the heat of the sun on your skin, or the dry dirt or thick river mud on your hands, or the stuffiness of a rural church, and the ceaseless chirping of crickets recalls Southern summer nights. Dirt Roads is a tone poem about growing up in a Southern Black family, it’s less interested in the ins and outs of Mack’s life than the experience of it. The film recalls the work of Terrence Malick, David Lowery, and Julie Dash, all filmmakers who try to communicate the living world through the limitations of two-dimensional film. Jackson solves the inherently un-tactile medium of cinema by enhancing the mood of her cinematic poem through lush sound design, a strategically deployed soundtrack, and original compositions by Sasha Gordon and Victor Magro.
Dirt Roads is a film for the patient and open-hearted viewer seeking experience and not just story. The story is made up of half-remembered moments from Mack’s life, more impressionistic than literal, a loose coming of age about a woman whose roots run deep in the Mississippi River’s muddy banks. It’s a celebration of Black love, Black families, and growing up rendered with great sensitivity and exacting detail even if Mack’s memories are, like our own, sharp on seemingly random details while the big-picture moments are imperfect or even forgotten. Mack remembers the width of her grandmother’s smile, the feel of fish scales and mud, the tightness of her sister’s embrace, the closeness with which her parents dance around the house. The feelings, the intimacy, remain even if the exact details are just out of reach.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is a confident first feature, Raven Jackson’s mark as an artist and storyteller is clear, even if she deliberately leaves the narrative of the film opaque. The experience of the film is heightened by Jomo Fray’s exquisite cinematography—the film is shot on 35mm, which enhances the feeling of remembering, giving the film an old school grain and texture like a worn photograph—and Lee Chatametikool’s editing stitches together the fragments of Mack’s memories into a tapestry of an ordinary life well lived. Patient viewers are rewarded just as Mack’s patience is rewarded when she fishes with something that surpasses entertainment for enrichment. This kind of cinema is nourishing to our souls just as the river is nourishing to Mack, and All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is a feast.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is now playing exclusively in theaters.