One might look for a superheroic tale of escape from societal disenfranchisement in Black Panther writer Joe Robert Cole’s subdued, highly recognizable directorial debut, All Day and a Night. Right off the bat, Cole’s moody urban drama about a ghetto kid’s attempts to escape from a life of crime feels familiar. Even the narration by Oakland wannabe rapper/producer Jahkor Lincoln (Ashton Sanders) warns us that his story has been told time and time again. But that’s the point Cole is hitting on, that Jakhor is like so many with big dreams who get swept up in a vicious legacy of violence and crime from which there is no escape.
Giving us a heads up doesn’t excuse All Day and a Night for toeing such an identifiable path, although it earns points for refusing to sugar coat anything. Not even the great, fatherly presence of Jeffrey Wright can ease the darkening mood; rather, he’s a crucial part of it, playing a gritty, thuggish character we haven’t seen from him in ages. Cole upends our expectations right from jump street, as Jakhor commits a violent act from which there is no redemption. Quickly convicted, scolded by the victims’ family, and sent away to prison, it’s there that Jakhor encounters the one person he struggled to be the least like: his father.
From there, Cole flashes us back to the events leading up to Jakhor’s inevitable downfall. The stealthy-eyed, quietly menacing kid grew up with a brutal father-figure, JD (Wright), a do-ragged dopehead with a mean streak. But one of the things Cole shows, and that Wright perfectly portrays, is how much of the tough-guy routine is just that, a routine, an act, something done merely to survive. When away from the hard-knock life, and Jakhor’s struggling mother, JD shows love for his son, casting on him hope that he’ll be something more. All of this takes a bitter, heartbreaking tone knowing what we know. JD and Jakhor are just two black men, stuck in a pattern, a prison of their own making. For all of his hopes, JD kept the circle alive, and so on and so on, until it took his son.
Spanning years, from Jakhor’s fraught childhood to being a stick-up kid for top crimelord Big Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), to his first stretch behind bars, All Day and a Night does a deft job weaving time periods together to form a cohesive tale of self-destruction in the face of systemic racism. Where Cole falters is in building the world around Jakhor. The supporting characters who impact him feel strangely out of place. Abdul-Mateen II is once again full of raging charisma, but Big Stunna, who loves to cook when he’s not killing people, is like a cartoon. There’s also celebrity rapper Thug’ish Trex (James Earl), who clowns Jakhor for his formerly-promiscuous girlfriend, but comes across like a low-rent Cee-Lo Green. A subplot involving Jakhor’s smart, ambitious friend Lanmark, ends on the kind of tragedy that cements just how trapped so many black men are by a government that easily discards them. But the paranoia and anger his fate inspires is short-lived, deserving of greater attention in a broader film.
It’s another tremendously internal performance by Ashton Sanders, the Moonlight breakout who seems to have gravitated to characters facing systematic oppression. He keeps the rage fires burning on the inside, his shifty eyes taking it all in, ready to blow up like a powder keg with a lit fuse. Like a scene in which Jakhor, just released by the police on a racially-motivated charge, destroys his mother’s new boyfriend who had just done him a favor. His slight? Being too mouthy? For replacing JD in his mother’s affections? Jakhor never offers up any real answers…
“People say they wanna know why, but they really don’t. They want an easy answer.”
All Day and a Night isn’t looking for answers, even if the questions it asks are ones we already know. It’s about whether Jakhor, and other black men just like him, remain in chains or break the chain. While his debut is imperfect and targeted at an audience who already know the score, Cole’s unsparing approach to touchy subject matter is welcome, and hopefully indicative of a bright filmmaking career.