A stunning debut feature, Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt brings an aching beauty and immediacy to a young Black girl’s life in Mississippi, followed into adulthood. First love, heartbreak, family bonds and lessons and losses, motherhood, sisterhood—Mackenzie’s life is portrayed in a lovely, flowing fashion. Instead of explaining everything through dialogue, the movie (which was produced by Barry Jenkins) prizes showing over telling; lingering scenes sit with the protagonist’s feelings and sense memories. Mack’s mother passed away while she was still quite young, leaving a persistent trace of melancholy, even with the support of her father, her Grandma Betty, and her community. And when Mack (played by Charleen McClure as an adult and Kaylee Nicole Johnson when younger) has a daughter of her own, it’s almost too much to handle; she calls upon the help of her sister, Josie (played by Moses Ingram and Jayah Henry, respectively).
The movie’s lived-in, familial feel comes from close to home. While Jackson grew up in Tennessee, her mother hails from Mississippi, and photos from family albums appear in the movie—along with her dad’s fishing tackle. A chance encounter with Bill Ferris’s photographs of Rose Hill Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi was also key to the film; Jackson stumbled upon the images at The Strand bookstore in New York City and casted descendants of the church’s members in a transcendent wedding scene.
Jackson chatted with W about tracing Mack’s life across the years, her faith in the body’s ability to communicate, and the heat of passion in one of her favorite films, Like Water for Chocolate.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, then screened at the San Sebastián International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival before A24 released it. What’s it like having the movie out in the world after playing at festivals?
I’m grateful to have it off in the world, and for more people to have the opportunity to watch it. It’s been beautiful seeing the ways it resonates with people.
Since the movie is so much about family, I’m curious how your family members have been reacting.
My parents have now seen it so many times. I give them an out, but they keep wanting to watch it! They were at the New York Film Festival, and it was really special for them to see it in Alice Tully Hall. It’s a fiction film, but there are our other details I’m using, like the fishing tackle or some of the photographs on the walls that come from our family’s photo albums. My parents see themselves in the film in a lot of ways, and it’s special for them to watch it—not only because I made it.
This film is so special because it doesn’t tell us how to feel, but it’s hugely emotional as we move through Mack’s life. How do you create and respect these intimate, emotional spaces in the movie?
I truly trust the body’s ability to communicate. I trust there’s a lot that is coming across, even without seeing. How is what we’re seeing now speaking to what’s coming before? I really do trust the tools [of an actor] beyond just the eyes.
Some of the most powerful scenes in your film are based on the sense of touch, or on intense gazes between people. What goes into writing and directing these moments?
This is where I’m grateful I studied poetry first. I’m a spare writer in script form. It’s finding that right detail, image, or way of describing something, that can speak to what’s not being said [aloud], but said in a different way. I call the scenes with Mack at different ages and experiences “portraits.” I would often ask myself: is a portrait needed here, or does it actually want to go later? On set, it was about really being present and adjusting off of that. Is it honest? Does this feel like real people in a space, a real relationship?
There are so many incredible performances—for example, Charleen McClure, who plays Mack as both a teenager and an adult. How did you cast her?
She’s a friend in my life. I’ve known her for a decade, and she’s a poet as well. We were in the park one day, and I just saw it. I needed faces that could express without needing to say dialogue, but through the body, through silence, through how they’re looking. And practically, her face holds many years, which this role was calling for, because it’s Mack from late teens to early thirties. I believe the foundation of our friendship allowed us to go to very honest and vulnerable places.
Many scenes are rooted in beautiful shots of people’s hands. How did you develop that vision?
I see the importance of eyes, but hands are right up there for me. I knew that coming into the film. For instance, the scene with Grandma Betty and the two girls on the couch [Mack and her sister, Josie], that’s scripted to be all hands. For me, hands hold so much in a film that deals a lot with what’s passed from generation to generation. In the funeral scene, in the back of the car—different generations of hands supporting each other. How are these hands holding people, how are they letting go? Hands are storytellers for me.
You show the passage of time in lovely ways. Could you talk about how Mack’s hair speaks to that?
I wasn’t interested in underlining “And now it’s Mack in her early twenties!” So how her hair changes speaks to that. Pamela Shepard, the costume designer, and Ikeyia Powell, hair department head, and I talked a lot about how to use the tools we had at our disposal to speak to these different chapters of her life. We see her hair when she’s younger in two plaits. And then as she ages, you sometimes see her with loose, two-strand twists and with loose braids that are braided into one braid. Then, at her oldest, you see her with one braid in the back of her hair. It’s another element of change to help locate where we are in her life.
For the Freeze Frame column, you chose Like Water for Chocolate, when Tita (Lumi Cavazos) and Pedro (Marco Leonardi) steal a kiss at night while everyone else is in bed.
These days, I’m thinking about connection a lot, and I thought about many scenes from that film, which I love. The two main characters finally have their first kiss, and it’s a hot scene—like, heat: one of the characters has just grabbed an ice cube. It’s very sensual.
When did you first see it?
I watched it first when I was in my late teens, before I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. That film has magical realism, and romance—I’m someone who loves a good romance novel. This romance that’s driving it felt very, very passionate. And the chemistry between them is great. It’s also a film that’s very close to nature and spiritual. I’ve watched it plenty of times since then. As someone who loves to be of the senses, it’s a film that speaks to that for me.
It makes a lot of movies these days feel kind of prim. It doesn’t hold back!
[Laughs] Yeah. And as far as romances, the chemistry between the two is great—one of the best!