PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 22: (L–R) Adele Romanski, Reginald Helms Jr, Jayah Henry, Raven Jackson, Chris Chalk, Charleen McClure, Kaylee Nicole Johnson, Sheila Atim, Maria Altamirano, Barry Jenkins attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt” at Library Center Theatre on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)
By Bailey Pennick
The sound of wind pushing through tree branches, the smell of the ground right as it begins to rain, the slight roughness when one’s hand touches another’s. These tactile sensations are central to Raven Jackson’s thoughtful and gorgeous debut feature, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt. Within her contemplative piece on the cyclical nature of life and lineage, Jackson invites viewers into the personal history of Mack and her family in rural Mississippi.
However, just because you’re invited into the intimate memories of Mack’s life doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to every detail of her life story. All Dirt Roads avoids the chronological tale of our protagonist from her adolescence in the ’70s to her old age, instead having viewers dive into specific and sensory moments to get to know Mack as part of the world around her. The result is a visceral experience that leaves you feeling like you know Mack, especially how she feels physically and emotionally.
To quote a very affected member of the premiere’s audience, “It felt like a beautiful book of poetry.” Jackson lights up at the comparison, feeling like her nonlinear structure was understood. “My background is actually in poetry and that informs my work,” she says excitedly. “I’m very interested in playing with the structure of my work and… It was finding those slant rhymes [in the filming and the edit]. What are these moments that rhyme, that speak to each other?”
The slant rhymes of All Dirt Roads are everywhere from the warm embraces that Mack gives and receives from loved ones to the texture of the trees that appear throughout different moments of her life. It’s arresting and calming to feel a familiarity with a life and vision of an artist’s creation, because we all experienced these loops and couplets together. And this approach is something that Charleen McClure (adult Mack) did not take for granted in preparing for the role.
“I took a lot of cues from the script and all those spaces of silence,” she says. “Just listening beneath the words, [especially with] the aspect of nature as a character in this film. [I kept] diving deep into nature and going through what was tactile and what Mack would have been sensitive to. [It allowed me to] be vulnerable in those moments.”
Nature grounds us all and, through its presence in this meditation on life and familial bonds, it binds us to Mack and her story.