The Nearness of You
An Interview with Raven Jackson (All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt)
By Robert Daniels
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt knows that life is a lingering affair. An evocative document of loss, love, and lessons learned, writer-director Raven Jackson’s film acknowledges how the quotidian moment gains significance over time. Through the eyes of Mack (played at different ages by Kaylee Nicole Johnson, Charleen McClure, and Zainab Jah), the film, beginning in the year 1970, traverses the past and present, touching on moments of heartache and joy for a distinctive coming-of-age story.
Jackson, a poet by trade, crafts a picture made up of a succession of memories, held together by emotional resonance rather than conventional narrative requirements. She, editor Lee Chatametikool, and cinematographer Jomo Fray luxuriate in the rural landscape of Mississippi, the outdoor rituals of Southern life, and the warm embraces found at home. We see Mack fishing with her father, Isiah (Chris Chalk), and gutting catfish with her mother, Evelyn (Sheila Atim). We watch as she eats clay dirt with her sister, Josie (Jayah Henry/Moses Ingram), and crushes on a local boy named Wood (Preston McDowell/Reginald Helms Jr.). There’s a tragic funeral, a surprising birth, and a restorative wedding, though these are not sites for heavy dialogue or repetitive narration. Rather, Jackson pushes her audience to locate meaning in the ballet of river silt; in the patient catching of catfish; in slow dances and long hugs; sweaty thunderstorms and warm, sticky winds.
Jackson’s visual interests have been honed in short films like Nettles (2018), where a sumptuous attentiveness to nature’s details (fallen leaves, cold valleys, and snowy forests) serves as backdrop for the life-altering memories of six women; and A Guide to Breathing Underwater (2018), in which the director demonstrates a fascination with the power of movement as a dancer explores New York City for a space to spin freely. With her debut feature, Jackson gathers these seeds for a film about tradition, guilt, and how we experience the heirlooms our ancestors pass down. All Dirt Roads allows us to appreciate the beauty in both freedom and constraint and the very sounds, odors, and delights of Black life.
Produced by Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt has an uncommon grace that is quickly becoming the standard of their PASTEL production banner. Jackson brings her film as close to poetry as possible, though her vision is never obscured by opaque metaphor or slippery conceits. I sat down with Jackson during the New York Film Festival to discuss how poetry informs her filmmaking, the pleasures of fishing, and the value of filming in Mississippi.
Reverse Shot: Does your writing process change when you’re writing a script as opposed to writing a poem?
Raven Jackson: Yes, because I do find myself needing to do a lot of research in the writing stage. My research looks mostly like taking photographs, being on the ground, seeing locations and talking to people. I like to say I need to be on the soil of the film in my writing process, whereas I don't necessarily need that for poetry. I find that the writing is different, but writing my scripts does feel like writing poems. I haven't necessarily come to the page to write a poem in a while. But I feel like I'm writing a poem when I take a photograph or when I write a script; it's hitting the same muscle in a way. So, it's different, but they speak to each other.
RS: The title of the film comes from a conversation with your grandmother about clay dirt eating that inspired a poem you later wrote. I know the film isn’t an adaptation of the poem, but I’m wondering, how do the poem and the film compare? Did the meaning behind the title change?
RJ: Well, you know, it's interesting. Yes, because my poem is totally different from the film, and it doesn't deal directly with clay dirt eating. So, in that respect, yes. Whereas I feel like in a lot of ways, it's different. But in a lot of ways the title works better with the film because it has that aspect of clay dirt eating while also the closeness to earth—which my poem has too—but having the clay dirt eating in the film, I feel makes the title work even better actually.
RS: How did this script initially read? Because this isn’t a dialogue-heavy film.
RJ: The script is very spare. I guess that would be the resonance with my poetry. There's not a lot of dialogue, of course. The lines are short lines. It's only 60 pages. I wrote more than what ended up being in the final script. I embrace brevity. I think that's a big thing with a script, and just looking for evocative details that I would look for in my poetry too, but to allow it to be in the script as well. I also put a line in from a Lucille Clifton poem to open the script.
RS: What’s the line?
RJ: “It's her dangling braids, the color of rain.”
RS: Did the script’s brevity give you more freedom to go off script, so to speak?
RJ: I think so. For instance, the grocery store scene with Mack and Wood. There’s a deer in that scene in the script. It's wild. And when we couldn’t get a deer, I was like, oh my gosh, we can't get a deer. What? We need it. [laughs]. But then it's like, why would I even want a deer in that scene? So, I think the script is like a starting point for me. I know what I'm looking for, but it's also knowing, Okay, what are the elements I have the day of? Coming back to that scene, I wrote that Mack and Wood embrace. But in the script, it does not read as a very long embrace. I recognized that I wanted it the day of, during the shooting of it. So, there's freedom in it. I know when I'm writing the script that I'm leaving room for discovery.
RS: You have several different actors playing Mack, you have several different actors playing a few characters. I assume they all had limited availability. So how do you work with an actor knowing that you may only have them for a small amount of time?
RJ: I think that is the benefit of having people around you who also know how you like to work. They protect that aspect of it. At least when I'm on set, I need to give myself that time. I also make it clear when I need that time. Gimme time here and I'll be quick there—knowing how to manage that. When I’m on set, I try not to think about those time constraints. I trust the process and I trust that if I do have to bump up against a time where we're about to lose somebody that I'll know what I have to get to make this work.
RS: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you shot more than you used. So many of the shots are so evocative that it almost feels like any frame could intuitively fit in the fabric of the film. What was the decision behind what stayed and what was left off?
RJ: Emotionally what was needed. We have some beautiful rhymes in the film, and sometimes we thought: Ooh, we don't need another rhyme of this. There are some beautiful moments I adore that the film didn't need. There's a whole scene that worked in the script but didn’t in the film. The film is so modular, and I knew that the film wouldn't necessarily be the script. You get different emotions during the actual shooting of it or something lingers that you didn't expect to. When I would see certain moments, it would be clear that [the film] doesn't want it [laughs]. It doesn't need it. Whether it feels repetitive or it feels like an artifact of the previous cut. It was really sitting with the cut and asking if it needed this.
RS: When you talk about film you often speak about scenes rhyming or being like slant rhymes. Though films can be poetic, I've never heard someone apply the lexicon of poetry to film like you do. For you, what is a cinematic slant rhyme?
RJ: A slant rhyme, for me, would be like Wood and Mack embracing during the grocery store scene. You see their hands on each other's backs. Then you cut to seeing Evelyn and Isaiah dancing, you see their hands on each other's backs. These are slant rhymes of moments in different years. Sometimes a slant rhyme is the same two characters at different moments, and other times it’s not the exact same characters, but it still rhymes. It was exciting for me and Jomo Fray, the cinematographer, to find those moments. A lot of them happened naturally. Of course, we planned for some, but a lot happened naturally too. Also, a slant rhyme—well, this is maybe just a rhyme—are the images of Mack digging into the river and the mud.
RS: Speaking of mud, as a child of a Mississippi man, I love the opening fishing scene. That moment of teaching, of learning a shared passion, warmed my heart. What do you feel when you go fishing, and, also, are you good at it?
RJ: I’ll ask you the same question! [laughs] I am great at fishing, and I feel joy when I go fishing. I really adore it. I also have a deep reverence for water and catfish. Catfish are all over my poetry, too. I find so much in the process of filmmaking, but also just in life, is about trusting what you can't see or what's unknown, the patience of waiting for a bite. The process of reeling in is very satisfying to me, of feeling a bite but also feeling that tension. When you see the little ball in the water going under, you don't know if you have that fish; that dance is very exciting to me. I feel joy. I also love the stillness of it. We would get up early and go see the sun come up. I love the dirt on my hands, all of it. The closeness to nature, to mosquito bites.
RS: I love to fish so much! My brother, on the other hand, hates it. He only comes for the sandwiches at lunch. I’ve been consumed by the use of the catfish in the opening scene, and really throughout the film. You’ve mentioned your affinity for catfish. What power do they hold for you and how do they translate into this film?
RJ: It speaks to family. The film does a lot with what's passed from generation to generation, and I love that you see this family at different moments in time, like around a table, gutting and skinning the catfish. So, it speaks to, for me, what we pass to each other, what we give to each other around a kitchen table.
RS: This film could have been shot in Tennessee, but you opted for Mississippi. What additional sensorial textures did shooting in Mississippi bring?
RJ: I thought we were gonna shoot in Tennessee for a long time. I grew up fishing on the Cumberland River, and I wanted to shoot there. That was the big draw for me. But when I found Rose Hill Church—which is in Vicksburg, Mississippi—and we knew we could shoot there, it just made so much sense to build the film around that church and to shoot in Mississippi. My mother's from Mississippi; we shot the grocery store scene at a grocery store that's literally five minutes away from where she grew up. When I would visit family, I would go to that grocery store.
I think what I gained was having a conversation with my mother's side of the family. It's interesting, in a film that deals a lot with generations of family, to be having a conversation with my own. I didn't plan for that. That was a really beautiful gift that choice gave me. Also, again, with Rose Hill Church, the song you hear in the wedding scene is from Mary and Amanda Gordon, who were pillars of the church when it was still in operation. There are beautiful photographs of Rose Hill Church by William Ferris and the people and the congregants of the church. So, having conversations with the generations of Rose Hill Church, too, was another gift given by that choice.
RS: Eras, years, and family being in conversation are major parts of this film. The way that time works is akin to how memory works; we're always in the past and the present in some way at the same time. I love that church scene, the way you track around the space, and you spend the day there. Could you talk about what went into shooting that scene?
RJ: I can't remember exactly how many, but we didn't have a lot of hours to shoot that. The challenge was getting everything set. I know for Jomo, we talked through it extensively and there were some lighting things to figure out with shadows and the movement of the Steadicam. But once we got all of that right, it was really getting the movement outta the people and the windows right. Which were all challenges I loved figuring out. I love placing people in a frame. I really discovered that in this journey. But those were the challenges; the biggest one being Moses had to leave very soon so we didn't have a lot of takes. But once we got that first one going, we only had to adjust a little bit before it really flowed. It was a very ambitious shot, but I'm really grateful for it because it's one of my favorites.
RS: I could almost smell that church. I almost felt that sunlight.
RJ: Thank you. It’s funny because I feel like the song works so well in that scene, and I hadn't discovered that song yet. And of course, these [extras] were actually people who went to Rose Hill Church. I just love how things landed.
RS: The same thing with the “If I Were Your Woman” needle drop, which plays as Isiah and Evelyn slow dance together. It was added pretty late during filming, right?
RJ: The day we shot it, I didn't know yet what the song was going to be. I had some potentials, but I asked my parents for recs of what songs would be playing because the year was 1970 in that scene. My parents sent me some recs, and one was “If I Were Your Woman” by Gladys Knight and the Pips. Right when I heard it, I thought, that's it. I started putting it on my speaker, blasting it, and we got it going. But I trusted I would find it. I work very well under pressure. So sometimes I lean a little hard into that.