This article is part of our 2023 Sundance Film Festival coverage. Follow along as we check out the films and filmmakers appearing at the first fest of the new year. In this entry, Farah Cheded reviews Raven Jackson’s directorial debut, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.
Raven Jackson’s stunning debut feature, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, overflows with feeling — in more ways than one. Presented as a non-linear collection of formative memories in the life of Mack, a Black woman from rural Mississippi, every scene draws on a deep reservoir of emotion. At the same time, the film’s lush sound and 35mm visuals cast an immersive spell on us, extending cinema’s access over two of our senses — seeing and hearing — into the realm of touch, too.
All Dirt Roads’ hypnotic opening scene sets the tone. We watch as a small hand (belonging to young Mack, played by Kaylee Nicole Johnson) caresses a freshly caught fish, its gills still gulping, at the banks of a river. Cinematographer Jomo Fray’s camera contemplates the scene in a luxuriously held close-up, one of the film’s many focusing on the expressiveness of hands. Together with this meditative cinematography, the scene’s natural soundtrack — lapping water, hissing cicadas — submerges us so deeply in Mack’s perspective that the moment takes on a tactile quality as if the fish’s scales are under our own fingers. The immersion isn’t just physical, either: we also feel Mack’s innocent reverence and gentle sympathy as she tries to reconcile with both the miraculous beauty of this living thing and its fate as someone’s dinner.
That intimate bond between people and the natural world is at the heart of All Dirt Roads, which is named for the tradition of eating soil, a practice we witness being handed down to Mack and her sister Josie (Jayah Henry, later Moses Ingram) by their grandmother. “This you,” she says, “dirt and water.” Jackson and her team build on the religious origin of this idea — man being made from clay — in their treatment of the elements, imbuing every visual and verbal reference to them with deep Malick-ian reverence. Watching the rain, for example, Mack says to a young companion, “[Water] doesn’t end or begin. It just changes form. All of these drops might be a river one day. Might be snow. Might be in you.” In All Dirt Roads, soil and water and humans are bound together in a timeless cosmic cycle, all part of the same thing in the end.
This moment is something of an anomaly in All Dirt Roads only because what’s so remarkable about Jackson’s film is how much it doesn’t use dialogue to evoke its poetic ideas. In most scenes, only a handful of words are spoken, and none of them explicitly spell out what’s going on. They don’t have to because Jackson and her collaborators make full use of cinema’s evocative potential to translate images and sound into eloquent, instinctively understood terms.
When, for example, young Mack gazes in wonder at the elegant painted toenails of her mother (Sheila Atim, sparsely used but to great effect), we can feel both the awe that she is feeling in the moment as well as the tinge of melancholy coloring the memory as it plays out in the older Mack’s head. Again, when a baby is wordlessly passed from one woman to another in a hospital room, the pregnant pause of a hand signals the transfer of something deeper. And when Mack (now played by Charlene McClure) and her childhood sweetheart (Reginald Helms Jr.) embrace in a parking lot, we don’t even have to know their history to understand the gravity of the moment (though we get to know it later, through another meaning-laden hug). Fray’s camera pulls in close to their embrace for a long, deep moment so that their movements play out like a silent dialogue. Their hands clutch each other with all the ache of yearning, their bodies rock with the shared rhythm of grief, while the flash of a wedding ring signals the finality of their separation.
Of course, All Dirt Roads’ impressionist style would collapse into dust without actors capable of articulating all of this unspoken meaning. Still, every performer here is on the same understated wavelength. What’s more, each actor playing young and older versions of the same person maintains the distinctive air of their character, so much so that we don’t really need their distinguishing hallmarks (plaited hair and gold hoops, a birthmark across an eye) to connect their performances. McClure retains Johnson’s shy, sweet watchfulness, while the deep roots of Mack and Josie’s bond are easily palpable across all of the film’s timelines. The lack of a linear structure isn’t an obstacle to our understanding of the film at all because all personal context is intuitively sensed, in part because of their performances.
The film’s elliptical, time-hopping structure is given lyrical form by Lee Chatametikool’s editing, which weaves Mack’s fragments of memory together to form a kind of cinematic poem. The profound result of his work is of the kind that a more conventionally cut film would struggle to achieve. Together, the film’s vignettes accrue torrential power, cohering to form something greater than the sum of their parts.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is as close to truly 3D cinema as there is; it’s a movie we can perceive with all of our senses. Each of its exquisitely rendered elements works together to immerse us in an ocean of feeling, both tactile and emotional. What Mack says of the rain is also true of this film: every drop of Jackson’s knockout debut carries within it the depths of a gushing river.