‘Good’ Girlhood: ‘All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt’ is an evocative Black family portrait

Feb. 25, 2024, 10:13 p.m.

In her column “‘Good’ Girlhood,” Blyss Cleveland reviews female-centered coming-of-age films.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

I seldom know how I feel about a movie until I have seen the ending. Twenty minutes into “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” I knew that I was watching a contemporary classic. 

Raven Jackson’s striking debut feature film is a tribute to Black life in the rural South. The movie takes place in Mississippi and depicts the life of Mackenzie (Charleen McClure) as she ages from childhood to adulthood. Through extensive use of sparse dialogue, elaborate soundscapes and lingering close-ups, the non-linear storyline unfolds as if the viewer is turning the pages of a well-worn family album. The film suggests that there are childhood moments that irrevocably change us, but we are only privy to when those moments occurred in hindsight. 

Jackson is a photographer and poet, and her mastery of these forms is on full display. Her languorous direction, aided by Jomo Wray’s sumptuous cinematography, quickly establishes place and pace. The film opens with sounds of insects trilling and bird songs that bring the viewer into pastoral life. When we meet young Mackenzie “Mack” (Kaylee Nicole Johnson), her father Isaiah (Chris Chalk) has taken her and her sister Josie (Jayah Henry) out to fish. Mack and Josie are slightly reticent children, in part due to being raised to abide by Southern manners. However, we know that they are cherished, as evidenced by their hairstyles — neat pigtail plaits adorned by brightly colored ribbons. 

The film is full of indelible images that inspire an emotional reaction in the absence of dialogue. During a small gathering at home, Mackenzie’s parents dance to “If I Were Your Woman” by Gladys Knight & the Pips. Isaiah and Evelyn (played by the incredible Sheila Atim) slyly glance at each other before locking eyes and clasping hands. To call it a dance understates what is actually happening — they use touch and movement to proclaim their devotion to one another without saying a word. 

Beyond familial love, Mack is introduced to romantic love. As she and her friend Tia wheel their bikes across the train tracks, they come across two teenagers passionately kissing. Upon learning Mack has never kissed anyone, the incredulous Tia takes it upon herself to teach her how to practice on the palm of her hand. Tia’s handy lesson pays dividends during Mack’s adolescent brush with romance with her longtime friend, Wood (Reginald Helms Jr.). 

Part of the beauty of the film is seeing dark-skin Black girls and women be deeply loved. As adults, Mackenzie and Wood hug after a period when they have been apart. Their tentative touches become certain as tears begin to fall from their eyes. It is the mirror image of the dance between Isaiah and Evelyn. Jackson’s camera work makes you feel the embrace — if life must give us hardships, then let us all have one chance to break down in the arms of a beloved. 

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Mackenzie’s reservedness is informed by her use of touch as a language. Hands, feet and the head are the links that bring the viewer to and through her life. Mackenzie uses her hands to plunge into the water to capture and release the Mississippi silt, and to comfort her sister and Grandma Betty (Jannie Hampton) upon her mother’s death. The plot turns on several long embraces, and for Mackenzie, they are a tool she uses to imprint someone into the deepest and safest parts of her memory. 

Although there is not much dialogue, the strength of the film lies in the ways that Jackson captures the hallmarks of Black speech, such as strategic repetition. During a playful adolescent moment, a character tells Wood that the neighborhood girls have their eyes on him and he responds “You know, you always think somebody is thinking ‘bout somebody.” The girl retorts “You don’t always know what I always do.” If you’re going to use the superlative tense, it is best to make sure your interlocutor won’t show you up.

While viewers don’t always know where we are in time, flashbacks from past to present are interspersed with theatrical moments where the audience is invited to use our imagination. During a church scene, the congregation — including Mackenzie as a young adult — reacts to a scene at the pulpit. As their faces telegraph hope, consternation and delight, we learn that this is a wedding. Delayed revelations are part of how Jackson provokes an emotional reaction.

It would give too much of the movie away to recount how Mackenzie’s adult life unfolds. She loves and experiences loss and, frustratingly, we are not always given enough insight into how she feels about events. However, there is a moment where Mackenzie recalls her Grandma Betty’s lesson about the importance of consuming small amounts of soil to stay connected to and be nourished by the Earth. This practice, geophagia, has been passed down among Southerners for generations but has become more stigmatized and dangerous as land has become polluted. The film’s non-linear storytelling is given more meaning after this revelation — we are made of water and will one day return to the soil.

Despite some of its narrative elisions, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is a triumph of a debut. Jackson dedicates the film to “the many generations of my family who watered the soil of this film with me.” She has taken inspiration from them and given the world a film that is a contender for entry into the canon of Black cinema.

Blyss Cleveland is an Arts & Life staff writer and Screen columnist for vol. 265. She roots for Mike the entire movie when watching "The Philadelphia Story."

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