Some films aren’t actually films. Instead, they are still portraits that come to life. A homage to Julie Dash’s 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, Raven Jackson’s deeply textured film, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt follows Mack (Kaylee Nicole Johnson and later Charleen McClure), a Black woman growing up in the late 1960s in Mississippi across four decades in her life. Jackson chooses not to orient her film in time or place. Instead, the non-linear feature, with its very sparse dialogue, forces the viewer to piece together Mack’s life experiences for themselves.
Certain moments are standouts. There’s a significant death, a birth, that first tender kiss in the woods, and perhaps most moving, a longing, tearful all-encompassing hug Mack shares with a former lover, Wood (Reginald Helms Jr.). It is an embrace that infuses all that was, and that could have been.
Jackson’s visuals are breathtaking. More than just showcasing these specific moments in Mack’s life, the camera acts more like a hidden voyeur as if it happened upon these particular slices of life instead of seeking them out. The scenes are slant lines, with specific moments never thrust squarely into the frame. As a result, the audience must piece together what is seen on screen, with all that exists beyond the periphery.
Since the scenes are presented as fragmented memories, the non-linear structure sometimes feels dizzying. However, Jackson’s decision to amplify the film’s audio, not through dialogue, but with the sounds of heavy rains, a wailing child, or even hums of crickets and grasshoppers moving through swaying grasses, kept the audience pulled in.
Yet, because Jackson only offers snapshots of Mack’s life, her plaited hair and gold-hoop earnings a constant throughout the film, the audience never gets to know her. We see her admiration for her statuesque mother, Evelyn (Shelia Atim), whose lush skin and red-painted toenails dazzle a young Mack. Moreover, her tight bond with her older sister Josie (Jayah Henry and later Moses Ingram) allows her to be more vulnerable than she has been with anyone else. However, her most significant life decisions and motivations remain a mystery even as the film closes. The audience never sees how and why certain things — including Evelyn’s death— have affected her. Moreover, one of her biggest life choices becomes a family secret that is never truly explained.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, which speaks to the tradition of young children eating dirt, is a sublime visual treat. However, the film feels a bit hollow because Jackson does not deliver much dialogue or even a skeletal narrative. It could have been better served as a short film instead of the 97-minute feature that left more questions than answers.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt premiered Jan. 22, 2023.