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Observed Online Interviews

Raven Jackson on Capturing the Beauty of Black Southern Life

Mundane yet profound, 'All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt' finds its power in subtlety. As Jackson explains, "I trust the ways we communicate without words."

By Matene Toure

November 16, 2023

Jayah Henry and Kaylee Nicole Johnson in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023), dir Raven Jackson, photo by Jaclyn Martinz, all images courtesy A24.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt indulges in the beauty of ordinary Black Southern life.

Like flipping through a family photo album, the film transports viewers back and forth through intimate and emotional fragments, culled from the memories of Mack (played by Charleen McClure), a Black woman living in rural Mississippi. Images that blur the distinctions between still and moving are dense with heavy raindrops, trees swaying from violent winds, and cicadas scuuurr-ing as myriad sounds and prolonged silences animate tactile and ambiguous memories. 

Directed by poet and filmmaker Raven Jackson, All Dirt Roads crafts a series of visual portraits of Mack’s everyday life, each shot in 35mm. Together with cinematographer Jomo Fray and editor Lee Chatametikoo, Jackson interweaves what she calls Mack’s “life portraits” with the rural landscapes that sustain her social world, in which the character experiences mesmerizing depictions of intimacy, kinship, care, and love. We witness Mack and her sister, Josie (Moses Ingram), eating dirt together and observe their parents, Evelyn and Isaiah (Sheila Atim and Chris Chalk) as they dance the night away, and gaze at an entire community as it mourns the tragic death of a loved one. In the end, a decade-spanning story remains untrapped by linearity or time but anchored in the lore of Black diasporic and ancestral connections to the land. 

For Jackson, the film was an exploration of Black placemaking. “Before I wrote a word of the script,” she explains, “I had to smell the air of the film. I took a lot of photographs of the south, the family members, of landscapes.” The rite of earth-eating reverberates throughout the film. The ancient and global practice has sustained and healed Black people through various eras and circumstances. (Despite being pathologized in Western science as a form of pica, the practice has ancestral roots in West Africa and was used by enslaved peoples for medicinal, survival, and healing purposes.) In All Dirt Roads, Mack’s grandmother orates the tradition to a young Mack and Josie in their family home, continuing a multigenerational relationship with the lands that nourish them.

Mundane yet profound, Mack’s life portraits communicate the gravity of family secrets, heartbreak, grief, longing, love, and Black interiority often without the use of dialogue, prompting the audience to listen to the film’s tender and meditative moving images. As visual theorist Tina Campt posits, “listening to images” allows viewers to open themselves up to the other ways images touch and resonate with us. In this vein, Jackson continues the work of her short films, Nettles (2018) and A Guide to Breathing Underwater (2018), each of which share an experimental, movement-focused approach that prioritizes other modes of experiencing and knowing. Following the film’s New York Film Festival premiere, Jackson and I discussed the film’s prevailing themes over Zoom, from its use of water cycles, to the tradition of earth eating and the bonds of kinship it produces, as well as how her background in poetry helped structure the film.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kaylee Nicole Johnson, Jannie Hampton, and Jayah Henry in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023), photo by Jaclyn Martinez.

Matene Toure: I wanted to begin by discussing the meaning behind the title of your film and how it relates to the depictions of maternal bonds and relationships within it.

Raven Jackson: The title of the film was the title of a poem I wrote that has nothing to do with the film, but a poem I wrote many years ago. I came up with that title after a conversation with my grandmother around the practice of eating clay dirt.

For me, it relates to these characters, [who] have a very close relationship to nature, to the earth. It’s often after rain when the earth smells really rich, those who eat clay dirt are drawn to the smell, drawn to the clay dirt banks, to get some. That connection to water, and terrain. Of course, the film has a deep connection to water, the water cycle; how this family changes form, how the relationships change—all of that for me are resonances and mirrors to each other. For me, that’s how the title speaks to the relationships of these characters.

MT: I’m West African, so the tradition of eating dirt is one that’s well-known to me. It was also passed down through my mom. When I watched your film, it brought me back to that time when I was younger and how I never questioned the meaning behind the practice.

RJ: It’s something that was passed down from my grandma to my mom, and it wasn’t passed down to me, but I’ve tried it. I think it tastes good. [But] it’s the passing out of it from generation to generation that speaks to the film too. 

That’s something that really connected me with Sheila [Atim, who plays Evelyn]. She can say so much with her face without using any words, and she’s familiar with the practice, which was important for me to cast in the [Evelyn] role. We spoke about [how] in different cultures across continents, just the detail of keeping [dirt] in a small bag in the cabinet. You know what I mean? Those details it was a great conversation.

Sheila Atim in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023), photo by Jaclyn Martinez.

MT: The mundanity of Black life seems to be at the center of the film, and we witness the more profound moments of Mack’s life weaved throughout the film. Was that intentional? 

RJ: A question that I was asking myself was, if our lives were to flood, what are those moments that would rise to the surface? Yes, the more profound ones, like the loss of a family member, but also the more seemingly mundane ones, the “small ones.”

I was interested in sitting with the seemingly mundane moments with deep reverence. For me, those moments—like just touching your grandmother’s hands—can hold so much meaning and weight. [They] can be moments that you look back on years later. I wanted to allow space for those moments and to give time to them. I think there’s a lot to be found in the quiet moments.

MT: You’ve spoken about your grandmother’s photo album being a research tool for this project. I would love to hear more about delving into that archive to help you create this layered family story.

RJ: I looked at albums from both sides of my family, but my maternal grandmother’s albums informed a lot of the costume design and textures. My grandmother is from Mississippi, and so when I knew we were shooting in Mississippi, it became a nice, very specific reference of time and place, a great reference for textures, production design, costume design, hair, and just mood, in the colors.

When just communicating the film, I did an inspiration deck that had some scans from some of the albums. It was a nice way to communicate the vision of the film once it got into more advanced stages and I was talking to department heads. It’s interesting how the process in so many ways was an organic dialogue with my lineage. It’s a fiction film, but there are a lot of emotional truths and details that are emotionally close [to me]. 

MT: How did growing up in the South inform how you wanted to portray Mack’s world visually, and through sound? 

RJ: I love fishing—it’s all over my poetry, it’s close to my photographs. I love catfish too, they’re just so beautiful. There are certain images like a catfish or fishing I wanted to show [through] these characters. Also, I wanted to lead with love for these characters and to give space for the love in the family, while also presenting the different shades of life. 

Through sound, I wanted to be specific with place—the sounds of the insects, rain. In some instances you see real rain, which is beautiful. In the wedding scene, the song you hear is from Mary and Amanda Gordon, who were pillars of Rose Hill Church, which is the church we use in the film in Vicksburg, Mississippi. You can see them in some of Bill Ferris’s photographs [from when that church was in operation], which are the photographs that actually led me to that church.

Finding all of these threads that can speak to the specificity of the history of the place—whether it’s from my family [archive]— there were a lot of different threads being weaved together to speak to place. 

Director Raven Jackson on set, photo by Jaclyn Martinez.

MT: You often use body language, and movement to speak in your films. It’s something I also realized in your shorts; the audience is guided to listen to the images. Why has that become an intrinsic part of your filmic grammar? 

RJ: I trust the ways we communicate without words. I trust the body’s ability to communicate without words. I’m interested in how the body communicates without using words. I am drawn to seeing that. I’m drawn to exploring that. I consider myself a more interior person, a person who likes quiet. I love stillness, and I love nature.

It’s things that aren’t just found in my work but are in my life too in a lot of ways. Even though words aren’t being said, trust all that is being said. Because a lot of times, yes, there are things you plan, but the way I like to create work, there’s always room for surprise, for discovery. I enjoy the ways the body communicates so much without words, and I trust its ability to do so.

I’m also aiming for an evocative experience in my poetry in the same way I am in my films. I’ve always been drawn to the ways we say things without saying it.

MT: In All Dirt Roads, you experimented a lot with a non-linear structure and time. I wonder if poetry was instrumental in structuring or helping edit the scenes.

RJ: I always knew going into the film that I wanted to build an emotional journey rather than a traditional plot-driven one, from plot point A to plot point B. It’s an emotional journey. I call them portraits—these different scenes of Mack at different ages and experiences. I was very intentional both in the script and then in the edit with where each one is.

Being intentional in the edit with how each scene is ordered to build that emotional journey for the viewer—because there’s a story there, even if it’s not told in a traditional way.

MT: One of the scenes I feel where nature and this idea of depicting nature in relation to human life cycles come through so much, is the scene where Mack and her niece (Lily) are on the stoop, and it is raining outside. Mack is talking about tasting the raindrops before they turn to snow. It was one of the small mundane moments, but it comes off so profoundly in the way it’s shot and in the dialogue between the two characters. What were your intentions behind that scene?

RJ: I still remember it taking me a while to find out how that scene was supposed to end. It was always one of the last scenes, but I still remember the day I finally was like, “Ooh, this is the scene. I finally cracked it.”  

The structure and fluidness of the film—it is the further coming together of how these characters’ lives change, how family can change, but also community, and what’s passed down from one generation to the next. Clay dirt isn’t mentioned in that scene, but it’s [represented through] the water and the rain. All of these things for me are present in that scene. For me, it was just the further coming together of it all.

Sheila Atim in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023), photo by Jaclyn Martinez.

MT: Earlier in our conversation you talked about casting and wanting to cast Sheila specifically, because of her also being familiar with the tradition of eating dirt. What was the greater casting process like?

RJ: It was a journey, but I loved the casting process. It was one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking and working with actors. There’s a lot of trust that goes into it. As a filmmaker, I like to work with a mix of first-time actors and more established actors. I like to say “I know what I’m looking for, but I’m open to how I get there.”

I knew that I would be looking at more traditional routes with the casting director [Candice Alustiza], but also [doing] on the ground casting, following what moves me, which I like to do in my work in general. Charleen McClure, who plays late teens to early 30s Mack in the film, is someone I know. She’s a poet and a friend, and I was with her in the park one day—something sparked, and I wanted to explore with her. Practically, the role calls for someone whose face carries many years, to play that age range, and she does have a face like that. She’s also very expressive without needing to say words.

Grandma Betty [Jannie Hampton]—I met her at an open call casting in Memphis, and she was there with her daughter and her grandchildren, just sitting off to the side, not there to audition. When I saw her, I had already cast Charleen at that point, and that sparked for me a resonance with just [how] they looked like they could be related. But beyond that, she had a gold tooth right where my mother used to have hers. 

With Reginald Helms Jr., who plays Reggie, I googled “musical artists from the South.” When I saw one of his videos, I was intrigued by his expressiveness with his body. He has very expressive eyes, and it just so happened that someone on our production team knew one of his managers.

In my experience [you have to] trust the process, and what moves you. Allow things to reveal themselves, because I found in a lot of ways that when something fell away, something amazing you couldn’t even have planned for would reveal itself.