A Spellbinding Journey of Black Womanhood

Feb 6, 2023

A memory, tinged with aching rawness, emerges in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” the feature debut by writer/director Raven Jackson. This memory briefly foretells the knotting stream of remembrances that roots our protagonist, Mack (played in these early childhood scenes by a sage Kaylee Nicole Johnson). It begins in 1970, with young Mack’s hands caressing a fish’s scales before throwing the suffocated creature back into the glinting water. It then jumps to her hands softly holding a fishing reel, its pole stretched across the frame. Her father, Isaiah (Chris Chalk), calmly guides her toward the catch. The director then steers us to a shot of Mack’s fingers swirling in the cloudy silt around the river’s current, and finally to two fish, one a catfish, that her father says they will not throw back.
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The catfish — also known, perceptively, as a mudcat — is the metaphorical center of Mack’s appearance (its whiskers, her ribboned pigtails); her slippage; her feeling of being caught; and her yearnings to be freed, which commands the multi-decade swarm of evocations that form her life. Jackson’s “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” produced by Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski, abounds with soulful reminders like these that, when strung together, compose a spellbinding journey of Black womanhood.    
“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” traverses, in graceful meditations and timeless kinship, through Mack’s enduring relationship with her mother (Sheila Atim), her sisterhood with Josie (Jayah Henry), her elusive romance with a local boy, Wood (Reginald Helms Jr.), her fear of motherhood, and her boundless connection with the textured roads, kinetic soundscape, and aromatic scents of her Mississippi hometown. Very little in Mack’s story rises to high crimes, misdemeanors, or melodramatic angst. She has regrets. She knows loss.
But Jackson doesn’t envision Mack solely as an accumulation of sorrows. In 35mm, we witness the amber glow that hugs her parents as they ardently sway to Gladys Knight and Pips and the pleasantly nostalgic scenes of kids cycling — which feels caked in the lush hues of Gordon Parks — down main streets. Jackson, who drew on recollections of her own family, imbues this proverbial flipping through a photo album with portraits of Black life denoting tenderness and belonging. So few films take such delight in wrapping us, without reservation, in the hopes, desires, and real depths that power the spirits of Black folk. Jackson’s pleasure in those facets is nourishing.        
In telling us about Mack, Jackson resists simple narrative form and common coming-of-age framing. Instead, her style — recalling Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and seen earlier in her own short “Nettles” — leans upon non-linear storytelling built upon an emotional arc that espouses the complex specificity of this character and her world. Touched by daring sound cuts by editor Lee Chatametikool (“Memoria”), the sparse-yet-impactful dialogue offers another subtle pathway to reshape the shards of Mack’s life: growing her from a young woman to an aged aunt (Charleen McClure). The leaps in Mack’s older years — clutched at with sensitivity by McClure’s taut, nuanced performance — inhales and exhales with the Southern landscape, where her smile widens like the sun’s dapple rays and her head bows, in darker memories, like the surrounding oak trees.        
But it’s not just how these characters espouse their environments that hold us closer to Jackson’s immersive vision. The palpable senses that emerge from these images poke at foundational events and meeting places that build a personal identity. The empathetic lens belonging to director of photography Jomo Fray (“Selah and the Spades”), for instance, lingers on a wedding, first with closeups of the scene’s merry vibrant guests, then toward the committed hands clasped by bride and groom, then drifting forward to the windows—where the musky aroma of the wood-paneled church mixed the breeze turns sweet—to view the scenes outside. Then finally, it turns its gaze upon a vase of flowers. A jump cut takes the scene from day to dusk, and the camera flutters back toward a knowing Mack and her calmed father outlined in the church doorway by ethereal light. In this single space, where a quiet beauty thrives, the compulsion for love and salvation tends to meet; here is the place where every facet of community resides. It is that wild reach for the poetic by Jackson which gives breath to these fragile days.  
At points, how Jackson arranges these memories — a stream whose ripples connect and disconnect and disconnect again — could be accused of being overwhelming or even cluttered. But aren’t memories meant to be as complicated and as slippery as the people they produce? At her heart, Jackson is a humanist filmmaker; she finds such pleasure, assurance, and empathy in human embrace and Black love. In a scene where Mack searches for solace, Jackson evokes the tenderness of grandma’s hands; in places where Mack looks for understanding, Jackson turns to sisterhood; in the spots of time when Mack expresses remorse for a love long lost, she desires the feel of familiar arms.  
And in those moments, we’re reminded of the image of the catfish, whose presence in Mack’s life — like the ghostly silt resting at the bottom of the river bed that reorders itself with every stab from the gashing rain — is tied to her mercurial memory. It’s telling that one of Mack’s most pressing memories with her mother is the latter teaching her how to skin a catfish. In a later scene, Mack sees her daughter Lilly being instructed in the same task. Catfishes are tied to the mud. They are so rooted in their environment that they search for food close to the earth. Fascinatingly, the other vibrant image Mack holds of her mother involves them digging into a cliffside, and Mack’s deepest tragedy happens in the rain, when catfish are most likely to surface and become prey.    
These are, of course, stray observations, which, when on their own, might feel insignificant until they’re later combined for greater meaning. Such is the right and pleasure of a poetic filmmaker, and such is the viewer’s treat. When Jackson’s “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” forms its full portrait, pulling together these seemingly disparate images for seismic import, the film is a treasure of community, a bold depiction of Black life, and a sumptuously crafted piece of personal storytelling that rises above tropes and cliches toward a piercing intimacy. [A]
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