The story of Black Panther writer Joe Robert Cole’s All Day and a Night is an all too familiar one. It follows the life of Jahkor (Ashton Sanders of Moonlight and Native Son fame) and the cyclical nature of violence that seemingly befalls many inner-city kids and those with underprivileged lives. Cole explores this cycle by diving into the expectations of the black male identity through peers, neighbors, and parental figures. The film does not deliver anything new, but still conveys its message through sobering performances and robust visuals.
From the minute Jahkor’s character is introduced, we see that he has aspirations for bigger things. He is an up-and-coming rapper in the community with songs that grimly detail his life in Oakland. Jahkor sees rap as an outlet to express his feelings.
There is a bleak tone that pervades throughout the majority of the film. Our journey with Jahkor begins as he sits in a car getting ready to commit a crime. This incident serves as the jumping-off point for us to see how he ends up in prison. Knowing the route the film goes down, it becomes clear that there’s no avoiding the outcome.
Jahkor knows where this life will lead him, yet the circumstances that society gives lead him to continue the cycle. The walls that are put up in prison are the same ones that are present on the outside. Upward momentum in this broken system just isn’t attainable, the film argues. Essentially, it is a trap. JD (Jeffery Wright), his father, delivers a disparagingly accurate truth when talking about how what they do is about surviving, not living.
Jahkor’s past experiences are shown through flashbacks that jump from his childhood to months before the inciting incident. A younger Jahkor experiences violence firsthand; he gets bullied by older kids in his neighborhood and his father, a known addict in the area, attacks someone for not paying him on time. He’s not naive about his situation. The script uses the passage of time to show that the opportunities that Jahkor is working towards are nothing more than a fantasy. So, in order to survive, he succumbs to the surrounding environment. We root for him to succeed, despite the route he eventually takes.
The film is attempting to showcase the duality of marginalized communities by giving viewers a look inside the lives of those they may not be familiar with. Cole stated in an interview that he wanted to “take the audience on a journey and humanizing someone we often struggle to see the humanity in.” It mostly succeeds in this regard, even if the totality of the goal is lost through derision.
All Day and a Night‘s central problem solely lies within its innate predictability. It only takes 30 minutes before parallels to other movies of this type start to become evident. John Singleton’s work comes to mind, as well as the work of the Hughes brothers. These stories, while very real, require more nuance than this film is ultimately willing to give it.
Nearly every character in this story is one that you have seen in other films with similar stories. The performances, while stunning at times, are hindered because of the comparisons that can be made. Many of these characters, like Jahkor’s mother and his friends, aren’t given the amount of time to be fully fleshed out. As a result, they feel nothing more than character cliches. We never see the lives of those characters besides a small handful of moments that just skim the surface.
Even in the most derivative moments, there is no looking past Sanders’ stunning performance as Jahkor. His steely demeanor is rooted with a quiet determination to rise above what society expects of him. Sanders works wonders, despite an average script. His behavior, even down to the movements, feels authentic. The supporting cast, namely Wright and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Stunna, steal the show as well.
Cole’s visual presentation of Oakland is also another substantial highlight. Notably, the one-shot sequence at Stunna’s birthday is impressive, even if it was done just for visual flair. The camera follows the vibrancy of the Oakland nightlife through a series of cars and people having conversations. Scenes like this are rare, but when they do appear, it stands out.
All Day and a Night boasts a great supporting cast and a message pleading for empathy. It’s not hard to see that the film has good intentions, but it is ultimately stuck in the ideas of the past. Joe Robert Cole is a director that has a lot to say, but this effort didn’t quite stick the landing.