Joe Robert Cole doesn’t want to make it easy on his audience. The writer-director of the new drama All Day and a Night warns you in advance in a statement that’s included in the press notes:
“All Day and a Night is a film that is tough by design. It asks a lot of the audience. It’s asking you to enter a world where hope is scarce for two hours. Where the fear of violence and the emotional toll on the characters surviving in the world of the story at times can feel suffocating. But it asks this in order to create a sense of what it might feel like to walk in their shoes. It’s asking us to try and connect with the humanity of characters who we might not normally consider in that regard.”
I hadn’t read Cole’s comments before watching this Netflix film, which starts streaming May 1st, but when I stumbled upon them, it made perfect sense. This story of a young black Oakland man who seems destined to follow in the footsteps of his abusive criminal father is utterly uncompromising, presenting us with a bleak environment populated by hardened characters who have been given few options. All Day and a Night asks difficult questions about fathers and sons, mental instability, the allure of violence, the scourge of drug abuse and the systemic racism that tears people down before they even have a chance to grow up. It’s eminently worthy subject matter, and it won’t let you look away. I admired its intentions. But by the end of it, I have to admit that I’d had enough.
Apparently based on incidences and people that Cole knew, All Day and a Night is his directorial debut after co-writing Black Panther and being part of the Emmy-winning The People v. O.J. Simpson. As the film begins, Jahkor (Ashton Sanders) sneaks through a neighborhood late at night, hoping to avoid detection. Soon, he’s made his way to the home of a man and woman, drawing guns on them. They don’t know who he is, but he knows who they are — and he pulls the trigger several times. Next thing we know, he’s in court awaiting his sentencing, his face an impassive mask of blasé defiance. Who is this kid? And how did he get this way?
Cole hopes to answer those questions through a series of flashbacks — one set of them when Jahkor was a boy (played by Jalyn Emil Hall) being raised by his hotheaded dad JD (Jeffrey Wright), and the other taking place during the lead-up to the murders — and through present-day interactions that Jahkor has with his father, who’s in the same prison. Just don’t expect a simplistic explanation for Jahkor’s descent into crime, as All Day and a Night shows us myriad steps along the way that ultimately led to his incarceration. Taken individually, those traps and obstacles are all painfully understandable — everything from disinterested teachers to a lack of job opportunities in an economically depressed community — but the way that Cole mixes them together, it starts to lose a sense of authenticity. Instead, it feels like a stacked deck that the filmmaker is imposing on his protagonist.
The late 1980s and early 1990s featured a series of indelible films about young black life told by African-American directors — Do the Right Thing, Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society — that were as much about the racist society surrounding the characters as it was about the characters themselves. (And, of course, those movies are all indebted to Charles Burnett’s incredible 1977 drama Killer of Sheep, which examined a black family struggling in Watts.) All Day and a Night seeks similar thematic terrain, drawing comparisons to other recent socially conscious crime dramas like Blindspotting (also set in Oakland) and last year’s Native Son adaptation (also starring Sanders).
As we observe Jahkor’s past, we see someone who’s been dealt a bad hand. His drug-addicted father espouses a monstrous brand of tough-love parenting — he has no problem whipping the boy — while also tormenting Jahkor’s mom (Kelly Jenrette). Learning at an impressionable age that might makes right, Jahkor fashions himself into a coldhearted bruiser at school, which segues too easily into becoming part of a gang war as he gets older. The role models around him are dealers, and the only way out might be through his burgeoning interest in rapping. But getting gunned-down is just as likely as hip-hop success.
Jahkor narrates his story in terse voice-over, offering pitiless, unemotional words of wisdom, such as, “We were born in prison, but I am not your prisoner.” His narration is not so much a justification for his actions as an overview of his fatalistic mindset, connecting America’s abhorrent history of slavery with the modern-day inequality that disproportionally affects African-Americans. His tragedy isn’t that he wasted his potential — it’s that he figures he never had any in the first place.
From Moonlight to Native Son, Sanders has shown an ability to play vulnerable young men who are trying not to crack while suffering extreme anxiety. His eyes always look red and watery — angry tears could burst forth at any moment. But as Jahkor, Sanders plays a character who isn’t as easy to sympathize with. Obsessed with being hard, he shows little compassion to anyone — not even his girlfriend Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye), whom he gets pregnant — and while he doesn’t want to get involved in dealing drugs, he’s happy to associate with criminals. We get a hint that perhaps Jahkor has inherited severe anger issues — his dad visits the psych ward while in jail — but All Day and a Night isn’t concerned with making us feel bad for the guy, per se. Rather, Cole is interested in the factors that turn young black men into statistics — not to mention the stereotypical “thugs” we see in crime thrillers.
That’s an empathetic ambition: Are the people we write off as “bad” inherently that way, or are they a product of an impossible upbringing and their parents’ self-defeating traits? When people aren’t given any promise of a better future, what hope do they have?
But I ultimately objected less to All Day and a Night’s “tough by design” strategy than to the story’s litany of clichés. Wright brings grizzled intensity to his role as JD, a self-hating father who takes out his rage on his boy, trying to shape him into the same violent failure that he is. Yet there’s nothing particularly original about the character — he’s just one more Awful Father, without the interesting nuance that would make him haunting or despicable.
Truth is, everyone that Jahkor encounters is some variation on the cautionary tales we always see in movies like this. The gangsters are predictable, the out-of-touch white liberals are caricatures, and when Shantaye reveals she’s having Jahkor’s baby, we can basically guess her trajectory from there. Even the film’s bittersweet ending arrives right on cue.
Lord knows that the social and economic ills that Cole chronicles in All Day and a Night are very real — and that many in the audience will have been fortunate not to experience them in real life. But after a while, the film’s grinding miserablism stopped feeling like the unalloyed truth about poverty, drugs and crime in Black America. As much as Cole thoughtfully seeks to show how the sins of a father get passed down his son — and how those sins can then be passed along again to a new generation — there’s something predetermined about the characters’ inevitable, unavoidable descent.
Deep down, Jahkor doesn’t believe he can escape the hell that is his life, and so he lashes out, beaten down for so long that he can’t tell right from wrong anymore. The trick for a filmmaker is bringing clarity to a young man whose existence seems pointless. Cole wanted his movie to be suffocating — I just wish it had found a new way to tell a very sad but also very familiar story.