“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is an emblematic, almost impressionistic portrait of a young Black woman living in the rural south. Inspired by Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” and produced by Barry Jenkins, poet and photographer Raven Jackson’s feature-length directorial debut offers little in the way of dialogue or conventional narrative.
It is a distinctly unique motion picture, one unburdened by many of the trappings and guardrails present in most conventional narrative features. It was that freedom, and concurrent challenge, that was on the mind of its makers when writer/director Raven Jackson, alongside cast members Charleen McClure, Sheila Atim and Chris Chalk, stopped by TheWrap’s Portrait and Video Studio at The Music Lodge during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival for a conversation with Steve Pond.
Pond began the chat by inquiring about Jackson’s past tense triumphs as a poet and a photographer, asking if filmmaking was something she had always wanted to pursue.
“[Filmmaking] was something I didn’t necessarily know was possible for myself for a long time,” noted Jackson. “It wasn’t until I was about to graduate from a writing program that I told myself, it’s now or never. Because I didn’t have that technical background, I kind of put that limitation on myself.”
Jackson was a first-time feature film director, and she hired someone for the lead role who had never before acted professionally. Charleen McClure, who had been friends with the filmmaker for a decade, stated that she too felt that such a goal was never really in the cards.
“I didn’t have opportunities for that when I was younger,” noted McClure, adding that she too placed such limitations on her own ambitions. “It was terrifying and exciting, and exhilarating and transformative.”
She further discussed how the role resonated so soon after the death of her mother. “There was a grief component, and I tried to explore grief already in my writing. Raven [Jackson] asked me if I would be interested in the role and [well], anything to support her in her artistic expressions.”
Atim, most recently seen in “The Woman King,” stated that she found the script to be both fresh and unlike anything she had read in a while.
“As an actor, you read lots of stuff that’s not fresh, and you’re trying to find the value in doing this job and you compromise with yourself. But with this one, it was a no-brainer.”
Chalk, recently of “Shining Girls,” knew that the project would be special and an experience.
“It would be something new, something that embraced a Black narrative that is similar to my history. That’s not anything that I’ve gotten to do which wasn’t [also] looking, almost pointing at Blackness and judging Blackness. This script just embraces, celebrates and offers everyone an opportunity to listen.”
The film’s final screenplay runs just 60 pages, with time jumps and a lack of a conventional or even episodic linear structure. As Pond noted, it’s full of imagery and little moments. When asked how she constructed the script, Jackson acknowledged that did not start with a plot.
“I just started writing things that would move me. The characters didn’t even have names for a long period of time. The script is 60 pages, but I wrote a lot more pages than that, which didn’t end up in the script. I needed to write to get to what those final 60 pages would be. It was an organic process.”
When asked whether the film was inspired by real-life events or real-life friends or family, Jackson replied that it was a fictional film, but that it had details and resonances from her life and her family.
“Even though it’s fiction, there are those very specific details poured into it. The art [on the walls] is from my family’s albums.”
Atim and Chalk both faced unique challenges in playing major characters who didn’t have much in the way of conventional plot beats or monologues. Atim argued that everything she needed was in the script.
“As an actor, you really want to imbue the words with layers,” Atim said. “When you have fewer words, sometimes it can feel that you need to do more, but you don’t, you kind of do need to do less. It’s in the breathing space that the detail comes.”
Chalk stated that the film, including his character and the incident-lite screenplay, was a “gift.”
“I’ve been challenging myself since COVID, to really evaluate how I want to continue acting and what pace is for me. Knowing that there is a safe space where a pace that is more in line with how I really function and allowed us to create is a little challenging. There’ll be moments when Jackson will let you figure it out. There’s that freedom can be a challenge.” Noting that he didn’t have to rush, he continued that “We were going against my almost breakneck pace while doing this doing television and [other projects]. To be given that space is a gift.”
Watch the full conversation about “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” in the video above.
TheWrap’s Portrait and Video Studio at The Music Lodge during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by NFP along with support from Sylvania and HigherDOSE