Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is a small miracle. A feature debut from the Tennessee-born writer and director, the A24-backed film acts as a meditation on life, a poetic retelling of moments that wash and wade, tug and pull, and shape and break one’s heart. Jackson composes her drama as a collection of experiences for Mack, played by Kaylee Nicole Johnson in childhood and Charleen McClure in adulthood, snapshots of a Black woman’s life in Mississippi. Both actors imbue reality into this character, a sense that Mack is so much more than just a character in a movie. Jackson tells Mack’s story without a need for linear consistency, instead deciding to focus on the people, places, sounds, and feelings that molded her.
Never hurried, the 92-minute film takes its time in sadness and sweetness in equal measure, balancing between 10-minute hugs and cycles of skinning fish for different generations. The hands of Mack and her family and friends become the focal point, the way that someone’s hand can be an entrance and an exit, a gateway to the past and the future. Weighty themes sit on the screen without expository dialogue. Character backstories and motivations don’t seem to matter. All that’s important are the faces, hands, and embraces of the people crowded together, in bathtubs and beds, on porches, swaying to the music of life or the music of the record player, or even the music of a church choir.
There’s a scene in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt that I’d regret not to mention, one that had a profound effect on me. Mack runs into her longtime friend and love interest, Wood (Reginald Helms Jr.), after not seeing him for an unspecified amount of years. Then, they hug, and this hug continues and continues and continues. Jackson focuses on the two’s hands, their backs, their necks, the way they push into one another and cannot let go. It represents filmmaking as a vessel for the rawest of emotions, the truest of human experiences. Both times I saw the film, I couldn’t control how emotional the moment made me, the way it captured how special and unique holding another person, holding someone’s hands can feel. For this scene alone, Jackson’s debut deserves not just attention, but immense praise.
With the Sundance and NYFF selection now coming to theaters, I talked with Jackson about that pivotal scene, about the rhyming nature of her debut, and the difficulty of receiving another person’s life. Like her film, she remained honest throughout our conversation.
The Film Stage: Can you tell me more about the theme of water in the film, about the constant nature of water in our lives? And how it shifts and changes?
Raven Jackson: I grew up fishing, first off. But for me it’s the way water changes form. The way it feels, the never-ending cycles, are mirrored in the story. How Mack changes, how you see her family change, how you see her relationships change and the world around her. It’s interesting because water was always there, but it was really when I wrote that last dialogue scene in the film, which came at the advanced stages of the script, when it really landed. How important of a theme water is and the movement of water. But, in such a fluid film, it’s always been there. Because water mirrors the fluidness, the changes all these characters make, the change of this family, and the changes in their connection to water and the clay dirt connection and the fishing. It’s everywhere. It’s also, of course, in us as humans. I was really inspired by the mirroring.
You mentioned that we see Mack in all of these different points in her life, going through all of these changes, but the film still feels cyclical. Can you talk about the cyclical nature of the film, how the moments throughout don’t actually seem too different, as Mack speaks to the same three or four people in her life?
What you’re speaking to is what I like to call “slant rhymes” in the film. Jomo Fray, the cinematographer, and I talked a lot about this during the shooting. For instance: Mack and Wood at the grocery store scene, how their hug is a slant rhyme with the dancing of Isaiah and Evelyn. How are these embraces, how are these hands holding each other mirroring each other? And then speaking to that cyclical nature of change.
That idea of slant rhymes goes to the poetic nature of the film, too. That scene in the parking lot with Mack and Wood has stuck with me since Sundance. It’s just so moving; I can’t seem to shake it. How did you decide the length of that scene, where to cut it off, which body parts to show?
We shot that scene towards the end of production. It was Halloween. It was the last couple of days of shooting. It was intentional scheduling that it was later. I scripted it, but I didn’t come in saying, “Oh, it’s a very long cut.” It’s something I saw the day of, how these people hadn’t seen each other in so long and have a deep history. They’re not going to hug for 10 seconds. And so I would tell Reginald Helms Jr., who plays Wood, “Just a little longer, a little longer.” We went through several takes and every time just a little longer. She smells the same, and I was telling them things to get their bodies in the moment. They were present, anyway, but it was always a little longer. Charleen McClure was amazing.
It was being present to what was happening and seeing that the hug wanted to last longer. By that point the language of the hands was established, so I knew there was going to be that. We did shots where we covered faces, but there was more body, hands on backs, hands holding each other. Jomo and I knew the language of an embrace like that and how to cover it. I’m so moved by that scene, too. In the edit, it just wanted to be longer. I mean, it’s a 10-minute scene.
The longer it stretched, the more emotional I personally became. It made me think of relationships in my life, and the idea of holding another person like that again for an almost-infinite amount of time.
Right. I felt that since I got on set, and I found it in the edit, too. There’s a version where it is a shorter hug and where we get to their faces sooner, but it’s just trusting what is happening in front of you. That’s what we did. Lee Chatametikool was the editor, too. It was just trusting the pace of it. These are characters that haven’t seen each other in so long, and it was about honoring that moment.
What do you think happens when you hold another person’s hand? What happens in those moments?
There’s something so special about being held, being cared for, feeling supported. I keep going back to being held. I think the holding of another person’s hand, an embrace––there’s an opportunity there. I don’t know. A word I keep going to is “portal” lately. I’m thinking of it now, like the holding of a hand and an embrace to be a portal for understanding, for acceptance, for forgiveness, for love. It’s a moment of a lot of potential. Whether that’s just sitting in the softness of someone else’s hand or just listening.
We see Mack in all of these stages of her life, and I’m curious why you found it important to both jump back and forth in this non-linear structure, and also to show her much, much later in life towards the end of the film.
All those moments felt like important scenes because I’m interested in a full life, not just the first 30 years. The question I asked myself a lot was, “If our lives were to flood, what are those moments that would rise to the surface?” It was important for it not to be linear for me because I wanted it to have that quality, that essence: that feeling of movement, of washing over you, of a life almost washing over you. I’m sure there’s a point in the early stages where maybe I thought it could be linear, but I always knew I wanted it to be an emotional journey of these different moments in her life that build to this complete life.
There are two moments that I wanted to ask about. Tell me about after Mack’s mother’s funeral, when she and her sister are in the truck bed and the camera goes up into the trees, blurry and almost going by too quickly.
I was asking myself if I’m a young child coming from my mother’s funeral, what does the world look like? The leaves that you can’t really distinguish one from the other, and the sound of the road. Even though it was scored, we still kept the sounds or road there. It felt honest, felt right to me.
And the other moment is the wedding, one of the only times we see other people in Mack’s larger orbit, people outside her family and Wood. Why have the inclusion of the larger community?
We shot the church scenes at Rose Hill Church. I came across that church through Bill Ferris’s photographs, and I saw a few randomly on Instagram one day. When I still lived in New York I was at the Strand bookstore and there’s a used photo-book section and I saw his book, The South in Color, and I remembered I had seen him on Instagram previously, so I bought the book. In the book there are photographs of Rose Hill Church and the congregants. These are photographs in the early ’70s, late ’60s. Rich when I saw the church was in Vicksburg, Mississippi, I was like, “This church is perfect for this, but there’s no way it’s still standing.”
And I am a lover of cold emails, so I sent him a cold email. He said it’s still standing and he was so down for me and my producing partner Maria Altamirano to go down there and see the church. And it’s amazing. Long story short, we ended up building the logistics of the film around the church in Mississippi. Some of those people in that scene, that you see the portraits of, some of them are from the community. Some of them are descendants of people who went to Rose Hill Church, and then some are people in my life.
It sticks out amongst all of these intimate, two-person scenes, this entire congregation.
Right, and then even the song “Lord, I’m in Your Hand” by Mary and Amanda Gordon. They were congregants of the church, or at least they were pillars of the church when it was still in operation. And there are beautiful photographs in that book I mentioned of them. They’re also part of it.
In your shorts and even in this film, there’s a focus on the way humans handle and interact with animals. You use these close, tight shots of dead and living animals. Can you talk about your interest in these interactions?
It’s about the cycle of life and death. As morbid as it may seem, I think a lot about death. We’re all going to die. It’s all temporary. When I see death before me, how the act of fishing requires the skinning of the fish, I think about life and death and the intersection of those two things. Beyond that, I’m just drawn to nature and animals speak to that. I find a lot of inspiration in animals, and not just visually, but also the sounds. I was very inspired by the sounds of cows mooing by Rose Hill Church. The fact that I’m deeply inspired by nature, that’s mirrored in my films.
Love is shown in many different ways in the film, from all these people in Mack’s life. Another weighty idea, and similar to the holding hands question, but how do you attempt to measure the love in someone’s life?
When you say “measure,” what do you mean?
I guess it can mean lots of things. How do you find it or hold it? How do you see it in your life after it’s been given?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the ability to receive love, and how much that informs everything. For me, something I’m thinking a lot about is how much my capacity to receive love, both from others but also myself… how much of it I allow in, at all. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about the barriers to love that some folks may not even be unaware of. I’ve been thinking a lot about receiving love, but also how to let go of all of the ways I didn’t always know how to let it in.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is now in limited release.