THE STORY – Tender caresses and enveloping embraces are portals into the life of Mack, a Black woman in Mississippi. Winding through the anticipation, love, and heartbreak she experiences from childhood to adulthood, the expressionist journey is an ode to connection — with loved ones and with place.
THE CAST – Charleen McClure, Moses Ingram, Kaylee Nicole Johnson, Reginald Helms Jr., Sheila Atim, Chris Chalk, Jayah Henry & Zainab Jah
THE TEAM – Raven Jackson (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
Few movies take advantage of the full power they possess as art expressed via a visual medium. The power they possess is not just to place us in another person’s perspective but to wholly immerse us in the world which they inhabit so that we too experience their sensory perception of the time and place in which this story takes place, aligning us not just with the protagonist’s physical being, but eventually, the entirety of their emotional state as well. There’s so much talk these days about the 3D experience in the theater – this cinematic transportation to surreal settings aided by state-of-the-art technology -. Still, many filmmakers forget that you don’t need all that visual wizardry to make a story “three-dimensional.” An introspective character study enhanced by the careful, contemplative direction that cultivates not just an atmosphere but an aura offers the same level of dimensionality and immersion, and there’s no need for any pesky glasses either. Such is the nature of writer-director Raven Jackson’s accomplishment here with “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” a non-linear yet lusciously lyrical look at love, loss, and life itself that not only captures the coming-of-age of one Black woman but allows us the opportunity to grow alongside her, as well.
There’s really no point in giving a stereotypical “plot synopsis” for a film like this, firstly because it’s better experienced than explained, and secondly because this is a story that’s also almost impossible to properly summarize, as it truly is just… life, transposed into cinema. Our central protagonist is Mack (played by Charleen McClure as an adolescent, Kaylee Nicole Johnson as a child, and Zainab Jah as an adult), but though this tale is primarily “hers,” it feels like it “belongs” just as much to her family – father Isaiah (Chris Chalk), mother Evelyn (Sheila Atim), and sister Josie (Jayah Henry as a child, Moses Ingram as an adult) – as, while she grows and is taken through the trials and tribulations of girlhood, her family endures their own evolution, and these storylines unfold simultaneously to Mack’s, sometimes in full focus, and other times in the margins, though still made out clearly enough to be seen. Jackson doesn’t hold our hand when it comes to acquainting us with this family or sharing their story, but she gives us all the tools to put the puzzle together ourselves. Nonetheless, it’s a remarkably mature choice from a debut director that pays off in spades. The refusal to conform to a conventional plot progression or expression of exposition provides the picture with its pure power and punch.
It also helps that Jackson’s camera is so compassionate, both to her characters’ emotions and to the climate they traverse, focusing on the sights and sounds others would ignore in favor of “showier” setpieces that prioritize action over ambiance. Every step of the way, Jackson abstains from dramatizing this anecdote, using this acute attention to detail to ground us in the Earth alongside this family and grow with them, honing in on the elements of our existence others would view as “extraneous” – the rush of the water in a river, the crunch of the grass against our bare feet, the brush of our hand against a lover’s, and so forth. This prioritization of the physical and the personal reminds us of what’s really important and what we really remember at the end of the day, as when the story starts to shift around Mack’s life seemingly at whim, she isn’t returning to memories of momentous conversations or dire debates, but to scenes of stillness and serenity – the simplest peace she’s ever procured. This imagery also holds a symbolic meaning for the story (the rushing river full of ripples doubles as a representation of Mack’s own life with “ripples” of meaningful moments that remain above all else), but it primarily seeks to show us life’s simplest pleasures, and some of the sweetest beats of unadulterated, unchallenged Black joy.
That joy is felt in the very foundation of the film, as even when Mack suffers setbacks – due to the loss of a loved one, the complication of a romantic connection, or so on – Jackson doesn’t linger on or exploit these struggles or sorrows, but instead simply sincerely shows them for all they are (and how they impact Mack), and moves on to the next moment. A definite attempt to avoid dramatization at all costs in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” makes for a better movie overall. There’s never an artificial attempt to push the plot forward – it’s allowed to move along as leisurely as it likes. Jackson is simply there to follow, focusing on the natural and emotional opulence of our world that others would overlook and then imbuing us with this information. Some may walk away having wanted more traditional storytelling or direction that spoonfeeds audiences with the character arcs and themes, but that would’ve been a worse movie, as it would be robbed of the vibrant, visionary voice Jackson possesses. And paired with persuasively poignant performances from her entire ensemble that align with her goal to exist instead of “act,” her efforts at cinematic empathy here feel nothing short of groundbreaking.