Charles Bramesco


All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt – first-look review

Raven Jackson's feature debut announces a striking visual talent, following the story of a young woman's life in rural Mississippi.

Raven Jackson wants you to feel everything. Her feature debut All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt begins with a close-up of a child’s hand touching the scales of a fish, the first in a symphony of vividly evocative sensory stimuli prefaced by the title: the muck of riverbed sediment, the white noise of rainfall on a body of water, the papery luster of skin under a stark light bulb. Her film traffics in memory, which the human brain retains not as linear completeness but indelible snatches of experience, recollected and recreated here as if taking inventory of a woman’s life.

Specificity is key to Jackson’s tripartite portrait of the stolid, sensitive Mack, a Mississippi native followed from childhood (played by Kaylee Nicole) to adolescence (Charleen McClure) and into adulthood (Zainab Jah). The filmmaker drew on her own upbringing in the American South — around Tennessee, where she shot part of the film — as she formed a whispered cinematic language out of earthy textures, and yet these samplings from a past precise in its style nonetheless amount to an end product both generic and familiar.

Jackson chose her title wisely, the phrase referring to the most distinct moment in a sometimes broad collage of sensations; the young Mack goes with her mother to partake in the time-honored African tradition of eating clay directly from the earth, not just for the nutrients it contains but for the act of communion with the planet and the generations of ancestors cyclically interred in it. With this symbolically freighted gesture, Jackson synthesizes her floating themes of race, womanhood, individual identity, and the give and take between handed-down constancy and personal flux in all three.

In other moments, the ravishingly tactile 35mm photography from Jomo Fray betrays a thinness within the film’s richness, as tableaux seemingly plucked right out of time nonetheless blend together along well-worn narrative tracks. It’s a good thing Barry Jenkins produced this movie, otherwise he’d have an open-and-shut case of creative larceny against Jackson, who ransacks Moonlight’s playbook in search of the secret to its beatific grace. She nicks the pastoral grit of this little-visited corner of Americana, and its connection to water as a locus of spiritual nurturing; stoking maximum catharsis through elliptical structuring that separates and reunites its protagonist from a friend and a lover, this time two different people; the halting, sparse dialogue, so vague in this instance that its near-cosmic expansiveness comes to feel a bit like hand-waving.

Jackson’s elegance as a constructor of images can only do so much to redeem her bluntness as a writer, which saddles the geophagia passage with baldfaced explanation when Mack’s mother spells out, “This you.” Though markers of the period have been scattered throughout, most frequently and least intrusively through costuming, the choice to drop in pointed portraits of JFK and MLK strikes a discordant note as it inserts overt politics into a symphony of suggestions.

It’s a feature debut all right, but generally in the good ways, bursting with pent-up inspiration even if it can’t quite fill the room for growth. But the notion of being as-yet unformed is one with which Jackson and her film are comfortable, having serenely accepted the unending continuity of the soul’s development. Living is learning, a longitudinal accumulation of perspective that deepens rather than changes who we are. Mack explores herself along with her surroundings, organically accruing confidence as she moves through the years; we have every reason to assume that the promising Jackson will do the same through a career with a grasping, altogether auspicious start.

Published 6 Oct 2023

Tags: Raven Jackson

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