'All Day and a Night': Film Review

All Day and a Night Still 1 - Netflix Publicity- H 2020
Admirable in intent but frustratingly distancing.

Jeffrey Wright and Ashton Sanders play a father and son struggling to break the pattern of African American men sacrificing their lives to crime in 'Black Panther' co-writer Joe Robert Cole's Netflix drama.

Oakland, California, in recent years has been the setting of a number of bold, stylistically distinctive takes on race, African American identity and social conditioning, from the searing tragedy of Fruitvale Station through the hip-hop swagger of Blindspotting to the gonzo satire of Sorry to Bother You. That makes Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole's reflection on the vicious cycle of gang culture and its toll on families an earnest but unrewarding disappointment. Saddled with an excess of voiceover and a shuffled flashback structure that keep the characters at an emotional distance, All Day and a Night feels familiar in both its bleakness and its ultimate offering of hope.

The Netflix feature from powerhouse producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson is a polished assembly, with slick visuals and an understated score by Michael Abels threaded with hip-hop and rap tracks. But the storytelling, while attempting to marry gritty realism with poetic introspection, is unsatisfying from the start due to writer-director Cole's problematic access to the father and son at the narrative's center.

Jeffrey Wright gets top billing in a supporting role as J.D., a one-time tough player in the local crime scene until his crack habit got the better of him. Following a brief stint in a psych ward, he's now serving a life sentence for murder in an Alameda County jail where his son Jahkor Abraham Lincoln (Ashton Sanders) joins him at the start of the movie after committing a double homicide.

"If you had all day and a night to understand your life, where would you begin?" muses Jahkor while casting a wary eye around the prison yard. The story is a puzzle-like attempt to answer that question as the soft-spoken aspiring rapper thinks back over the path that led him to do exactly what he swore to himself that he wouldn't — become like his father. In somber voiceover that spells out every last ounce of subtext, Jahkor considers the ways in which J.D. shaped his destiny, but also the entire generations of men — brothers, uncles, cousins — living out the same story, stuck on repeat.

The film cuts back to 13 years earlier, when the young Jahkor (Jalyn Emil Hall) gets a brutal beating from J.D. for being soft enough to let another kid overpower him and steal his toy. "It's dog eat man out there," J.D. tells his dismayed wife (Kelly Jenrette). "If he don't get that in here, he ain't gonna make it." That becomes his first formative lesson in violence.

The action then jumps ahead to 13 months before the murders that would land Jahkor in prison. He's jacking cars with TQ (Isaiah John), who is eager to get into the bigger money of drug-dealing, while another of Jahkor's childhood friends, Lamark (Christopher Meyer), has tried to do everything right to get out of the 'hood but landed back there in a wheelchair after sustaining injuries in the military. Meanwhile, Jahkor's girlfriend Shantaye (Shakira Ja'nai Paye), who has her own troubled history, informs him she's pregnant.

Cole and editor Mako Kamitsuna zip back and forth between the prison scenes and both the remote and more recent past, and while the time jumps are clear enough, they contribute to fragment rather than deepen the central characterization. Jahkor is such a mumbly, taciturn figure that it's difficult to connect with him; Sanders' internalized performance was a beautiful fit as the teenage Chiron in Moonlight, but here his recessive style just keeps Jahkor emotionally at arm's length. Cole's script generally gives him too little to say but his inner voice refuses to shut up, long after the device has reached saturation point.

The storyline of Jahkor's fate feels sketchy, hitting beats we've seen delivered with greater impact in countless dramas about the absence of choices in dangerous urban areas that funnel young black men into the prison system. Cole's admirable aim is to bring empathy and humanity to a young man who is the product of a dehumanizing environment, but although he makes that world quite cinematic, he doesn't succeed in drawing us in.

Jahkor's efforts to jump-start a music career never acquire much driving force, bumping up against the arrogant indifference of blowhard rapper Thug'ish T-Rex (James Earl), and his experience of the "tiny cuts" of everyday racism is conveyed with clunky obviousness. The promise of interesting character development in gang boss Big Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his consort La-Trice (Rolanda D. Bell) goes largely untapped. Only Jenrette as Jahkor's mother and Regina Taylor as his grandmother register some wrenching moments of sorrow that open up the drama on a more intimate level.

For a compelling actor of his talents, Wright is given relatively little to do, though there's poignancy in watching the young Jahkor wrestle with his fear of his father and his yearning for the damaged man's love. The boy's despair at witnessing basehead J.D. destroy his life festers for years until it finds a release in the crime that puts him behind bars. But by starting with that explosive incident rather than climaxing with it, the narrative has no place to build.

The hesitant reconciliation in prison of father and son, and Jahkor's resolve to halt the cycle for his own child provide a moderately affecting conclusion. It's just a long, underpowered journey to get there.

Production companies: Color Force, Mighty Engine
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Ashton Sanders, Regina Taylor, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Isaiah John, Kelly Jenrette, Shakira Ja'nai Paye, Jalyn Emil Hall, James Earl, Christopher Meyer, Rolanda D. Bell, Stephen Barrington, Andrea Lynn Ellsworth, Kaleb Alexander Roberts, Ramone Hamilton
Director-screenwriter: Joe Robert Cole
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Jared Ian Goldman
Executive producer: Jonathan Montepare
Director of photography: Jessica Lee Gagne
Production designer: Kay Lee
Costume designer: Antoinette Messam
Music: Michael Abels
Editor: Mako Kamitsuna
Casting: Kim Coleman

Rated R, 121 minutes