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“Slow. Take your time.” Isaiah (Chris Chalk) is coaching his eldest daughter to fish. Mack (Kaylee Nicole Johnson) takes in the moment, running her hand through the river’s muddy waters—an act she will repeat many more times throughout her life, as shown through the lens of Raven Jackson’s debut feature, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.” She pets the catfish caught in her dad’s trap in a solemn way. She knows what comes next, even if she does not yet know how to prepare the fish for a meal. That knowledge will come from her mother, Evelyn (Sheila Atim). Her mother’s soothing instructions echo her father’s tips on catching fish: Slow. Take your Time.
Written and directed by Jackson, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is a poetic memoir of Mack’s life. Memories will appear one after another from her youngest days to her gray-haired years, non-sequentially, creating a winding road that bobs and weaves through mundane and life-defining moments alike. A death, a birth, first kiss, youthful misadventures, and sisterly moments shared only by Mack and her sister Josie (Jayah Henry). Jackson serves these slices of life portraits as if freshly picked from a tree and slivered into bite-sized servings, the way my grandfather used to cut up limes and hand them to my cousins and me while we piled in front of his old TV.
In this otherwise unremarkable memory, I remember the feeling of the stubby gray carpet on my feet and legs and the red marks it left behind if we sat there for too long, my annoyance at my younger cousins’ inability to sit calmly on the couch through after school cartoons, and the way the fresh lime made our teeth feel like skin and our lips puckered red from its sourness. In her film, Jackson also channels these sensations in detailed close-ups of ribbons in the girls’ hair as they flutter in the wind, the funky pattern of grandma’s old blankets, the softness of cloth diapers, and the material of her characters’ clothes and how they drape off of their wearers’ bodies. It's a sensorial effect that transports us back when everything seemed new and fascinating to our young eyes, and it was easier to play on the ground while your mother was talking to the other grown-ups at parties.
“Slow. Take your time” can also be advice from the film’s gentle pacing. Memories fade one into the other, like raindrops falling into a stream. Water plays an important recurring role in Jackson’s film as a throughline between Mack’s past, present, and future, like using the sound of rain to tie together memories at different stages of her life or how a solitary bath before the birth of her daughter echoes an earlier memory of a baby-aged Mack taking a bath with her mom Evelyn years before. Jackson, along with cinematographer Jomo Fray, captures the characters and their surroundings in gorgeous 35mm, constructing each image and cut from editor Lee Chatametikool with a painterly precision that creates dreamlike visions out of everyday life. The film stock gives “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” a bygone color scheme, making each composed moment of grief, a flirtatious look, a creased smile, or the stillness of hands holding each other look like a grand oil painting, heavy with life and emotion. Even a montage of Black women’s faces at a wedding is like a close-up of all the emotions felt watching new love—all the hope and happiness held in their hearts is clear as the glowing look on their faces.
In memory, there is the tender embrace of the familiar: a mother’s comfort, the pain of loss that will never be forgotten, the sensation of feeling at home listening to Spanish moss rustling in the trees or running your hand through the river where you used to fish with your father. The layout of “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is a meandering trip down memory lane, more heartfelt than logical. Though narrative details are sometimes suggestive, Jackson finds innovative ways to visualize simple details, focusing on how gently a mom bathes her child, how carefully sisters hold onto each other in times of crisis, and every moment in between. As you follow Mack’s experiences growing up in Mississippi, you feel every painstaking detail, the camera accentuating every texture. “Slow. Take your time.” After all, isn’t there always beauty in our daily lives?
Now playing in theaters.
Charleen McClure as Mack
Sheila Atim as Evelyn
Moses Ingram as Josie
Reginald Helms Jr. as Wood
Kaylee Nicole Johnson as Young Mack
Chris Chalk as Isaiah
Zainab Jah as Older Mack
Preston MacDowell as Young Wood
Jannie Hampton as Grandma Betty
Jayah Henry as Young Josie