All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Charleen McClure, Chris Chalk, drama, film festivals, Jannie Hampton, Jayah Henry, Kaylee Nicole Johnson, Mississippi, movies, Mylee Shannon, New York Film Festival, Preston McDowell, Raven Jackson, Reginald Helms Jr., reviews, Sheila Atim, Sundance, Sundance Film Festival, Zainab Jah
November 5, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Raven Jackson
Culture Representation: Taking place from the 1970s to the 2020s, primarily in an unnamed rural part of Mississippi, the dramatic film “All Dirt Roads Taste of Saly” features an all-African American cast of characters representing the working-class.
Culture Clash: The story of a rural family struggling with poverty and grief in Mississippi is told across generations and mainly from the perspectives of the females in the family.
Culture Audience: “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching artistic and experimental movies about rural American families.
As the title suggests, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is not going to appeal to everyone, it’s not entirely comfortable to experience, and it’s probably an acquired taste. It’s a cinematic poem that is best appreciated by viewers who are open to watching slow-paced movies that don’t follow a traditional narrative structure. This unique and atmospheric drama shows the connection between nature and a rural Mississippi family.
“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Raven Jackson, who has a background as a poet and photographer. These talents are evident in the often-abstract way that the story is told in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” and how this movie uses visuals to tell much of the story, which has very little dialogue. “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, including the New York Film Festival.
“All Dirt Roads of Salt” is told in non-chronological order and presented as pieces of a puzzle that challenges viewers to put these pieces together to see the bigger picture and the overall story. The rural Mississippi family who’s at the center of the movie is a tight-knit clan that has to cope with poverty, heartbreak and sudden tragedy. The family consists of spouses Evelyn (played by Sheila Atim) and Isaiah (played by Chris Chalk), who are happily married and live in a modest home with their daughters Mackenzie (nicknamed Mack) and Josie.
Mack (who was born in 1970) is about three years older than Josie. Mack is slightly rebellious and more outspoken than mild-mannered Josie. Kaylee Nicole Johnson has the role of Mack as a pre-teen. Charleen McClure, who makes her feature-film debut in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” portrays Mack as a teenager and adult. Jayah Henry has the role of Josie as a pre-teen. Moses Ingram depicts Josie as a teenager and as an adult.
It’s not mentioned in the movie how the parents make money, but it’s clear that the family members get a lot of their food from the land where they live. The movie’s opening scene shows Isaiah patiently teaching Mack how to fish, while Josie watches nearby. Another scene shows Evelyn teaching Mack how to skin a fish. Isaiah and Evelyn are loving parents who are strict. At one point in the movie, Evelyn tells Mack, “Don’t speak until you’re spoke to.”
Evelyn and Mack also spend some mother/daughter time together by digging for clay dirt, which Evelyn puts in a shoebox. Some African Americans, especially in the Southern part of the U.S., follow a tradition of eating clay dirt, in order to commune with nature. This tradition originated in West Africa.
Because “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” does not tell this family’s story in a linear manner, it’s up to viewers to pay attention and figure out what this family’s story is. Without giving away too many details in this review, it’s enough to say that this family goes through many difficult challenges. In one scene, Isaiah and some local men frantically try to put out flames on the family home as it’s being burned, while the other family members stand by and watch with sadness and fear. (No reason is given in the movie for how or why this fire occurred.)
There’s also a death in the family that drastically changes the childhoods of Mack and Josie. Their maternal grandmother Betty (played by Jannie Hampton) comes to visit during this time of grief. Like many grandmothers, Betty is able to hold the family together and be a source of comfort during overwhelming sadness. Betty also tells Mack and Josie some family history that these grandchildren did not know.
As a teenager, Mack falls for a local teen named Wood (played by Preston McDowell), and they have a sweet romance. There are clues that their relationship has been on-again/off-again, because by the time they are young adults, Mack and Wood (played by Reginald Helms Jr.) are no longer a couple. Mack is pregnant with Wood’s child, but he is married to a woman named Rita, who is never seen in the movie.
Mack and Wood still have a love connection and find ways to see each other for romantic trysts. Wood tries to show that he wants to be in this baby’s life, but Mack knows that it’s unlikely that Wood will leave his wife for her. Mack’s decision about how the baby will be raised is shown in the movie.
“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” has several scenes that take place outdoors in the woods, especially when it’s raining. The movie’s immersive cinematography (by Jomo Fray) and sound mixing are sensory experiences in this world. The sights and sounds of nature are meant to be intertwined with the human condition that’s presented in this movie.
When Mack gives birth to a daughter named Lily and tells Lily as a baby (played by Naomi Glenn), “You’re made of dirt. You know that?,” it’s not meant as an insult but as a way to tell her child the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” philosophy of the life-death cycle. Lily (played by Robin Crudup) is later shown as a child who’s about 9 or 10 years old.
Because there isn’t much dialogue in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” the cast members often have to act with their facial expressions and body language. The performances in the movie are capable, but not spectacular. “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is not about showoff performances but about naturalistic “slice of life” snippets of this family. Mack, the character who gets the most screen time, is the only character who is shown from infancy (played by Mylee Shannon) to middle age (played by Zainab Jah).
Why is eating clay dirt a tradition for some people? By eating the dirt, people who believe in this tradition also believe that they can detect the health of the earth around them. If viewers are patient enough to watch “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” they can see how the movie artfully shows that the well-being of nature can transform over time and can be connected to how people can transform over time as human beings.
A24 released “All Dirt RoadsTaste of Salt” in select U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023.