In All Day and a Night, the new Netflix crime film from writer/director Joe Robert Cole, Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) plays Jahkor Abraham Lincoln, a young Oakland man whose life in one of that city’s most underserved communities has come to an all-too-familiar crossroads: does he follow in the path of his currently jailed father J.D. (Jeffrey Wright) and plunge full-on into a life of crime and gang culture, or does he pursue a different path — he wants to be a rapper and has started making his own mixtapes — and try to break the cycle for the sake of his newborn son?
Actually, as the film begins, that decision seems to be all but moot. Like way too many films these days, All Day and a Night begins near the end: we meet Jahkor as he commits a brutal, heartless crime and then watch as the movie retraces his steps back through what led to that fateful moment. The situation that Jahkor finds himself in, the events that led to his horrendous actions and glimpses of his childhood (where Jalyn Hall has the role) under the violent thumb of J.D. — his mother, played by Kelly Jenrette, is empathetic but largely ineffectual — all bounce off each other in decidedly non-linear fashion.
Cole began his career directing and co-writing an experimental film called Amber Lake, and the puzzle-piece structure of All Day and a Night is perhaps influenced by some of that aesthetic. But Cole also co-wrote Black Panther with Ryan Coogler for Marvel, and All Day and a Night reflects that film’s combination of big emotional beats and socially conscious themes. Yet Cole has overextended himself here, because as ambitious and heartfelt as All Day and a Night can be, it’s too haphazardly constructed to drive its points home with the emotional and dramatic weight required.
Part of that problem is due to another stock device Cole deploys: the voiceover, which acts less as connective tissue for the narrative than just a series of gravity-laden pronouncements from the otherwise taciturn Jahkor. “Generations of men — brothers, uncles, cousins, all of us — part of the story on fucking repeat,” he says at one point, essentially proclaiming what the movie is about. Many of Jahkor’s other remarks don’t necessarily seem connected to the action onscreen, giving them the feel of non-sequiturs and enhancing the impression that the film’s editing process was a difficult one.
Sanders is not especially impressive as Jahkor — he’s all repressed rage or glum silence for most of the movie — but he is buttressed by a strong cast around him. Jeffrey Wright is outstanding as J.D., in a performance that lifts the film every time he’s onscreen. We first see J.D. beating little Jahkor with his belt after the child allows a bully to steal his toy; but Jahkor later answers in the negative when J.D. asks if his father hit him too hard. “What, you ain’t stepped outside lately?” J.D. asks his wife when she questions his methods. “It’s dog eat man out there. If he don’t learn that in here, he ain’t gonna make it.”
Later, we sense that this tormented man does, in his way, love his son; ironically, his respect for Jahkor grows once the young man enters the same lock-up as J.D., a seasoned inmate who does his best to protect his child from the gang tendrils that extend their reach into the prison itself. The central idea of a father and son both serving time in the same prison, with the dynamic of their relationship changing in those often dangerous and indifferent confines, is the best part of All Day and a Night, and one which Cole probably could have focused on more — if not making it the basis of the entire film.
But instead he wants to tell a big story, one that encompasses not just life inside the prison walls, but Jahkor’s impending fatherhood, rap culture (and how it intersects with the criminal element), a gang war, plus racial tensions in the other, whiter parts of Oakland. All of these aspects briefly surface and then fade into the background again, as do potentially fascinating characters like the charismatic crime lord Big Stunna (Aquaman’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), his wife/business partner La-Trice (Rolanda D. Bell) and Jah’s briefly seen, sorrowful grandmother (Regina Taylor).
The result is a stylishly shot and scored movie that strains to be important and dramatic but ends up dull, disjointed and occasionally confusing. Cole and Coogler hit a home run with the powerful Black Panther screenplay, and Cole also has an Emmy on his desk for writing an episode of American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson (which he also co-produced), so it’s clear that he’s got talent to spare behind the computer keyboard. But All Day and a Night (the meaning of which, as a title, is not quite clear either) shows that as a director, he may not quite be ready to tackle such ambitious material — even if it’s his own.
All Day and a Night is available now on Netflix.