A sober but dramatically inert crime saga about a young black man trying to free himself from the cycle of violence into which he was born, Joe Robert Cole’s “All Day and a Night” never shies away from the fact that it’s singing a familiar tune. “Same fuckin’ story on repeat” the narration sighs from the top, as if the film is already looking to scapegoat its own predictability on that of the prison-industrial complex.
But the most vital thing about this gristly piece of fiction is that it neither succumbs to miserablism nor gives in to magical thinking; Cole’s movie neither resigns to the reality of a hard-knock life, nor softens into some kind of feel-good salve about one good kid who manages to beat a game that’s rigged against him (as if the ones who don’t only have themselves to blame). There’s a fine line between resilience and false hope, and “All Day and a Night” walks it with purpose even when it’s tripping over itself.
Cole, who co-wrote “Black Panther” with Ryan Coogler, has a proven knack for adding new life into old stories, and the most radical choice he makes here comes right at the start. “All Day and a Night” opens with a brutal sequence that immediately upends the most basic assumption that audiences have been conditioned to bring into a movie like this; one that denies us the privilege of “humanizing” its troubled hero in order to put the onus of doing that on him instead.
Jahkor (another rivetingly implosive performance from “Moonlight” breakout Ashton Sanders) doesn’t make the best first impression. We meet East Oakland’s latest aspiring rapper on the most hopeless night of his life, as he sneaks into an unidentified man’s house and executes the guy and his girlfriend in front of their young daughter. Cut to: Jahkor’s day in court, as one of the victims’ devastated mothers demands to know why he killed their baby. “People say they wanna know why,” Sanders growls over the monotone, overwritten voiceover track that locks his character into a prison all his own, “but they really don’t. They want an easy answer.”
And so begins an inner-city drama inspired by “City of God” and “Memento” in equal measure — an inter-generational story of black men stuck in a broken system that skitters across its timeline until even Jhakor’s most self-evident motivations are tinged with mystery. In broad strokes, the “why” of it all couldn’t seem more obvious, especially once the movie rolls back the clock to introduce us to Jhakor’s dad.
Played by a coiled Jeffrey Wright, whose try-hard affectations harmonize beautifully with those of an abusive man trying to perform his own toughness, J.D. only knows how to prepare his son for the world as he’s lived it (Jalyn Hall is effective as tween Jhakor). He repeats the lessons his own father taught him: “It’s dog eat man out there,” J.D. explains to Jhakor’s mom after beating on their kid. “If he don’t learn that he’s not gonna make it.” He’s shamed into asking Jhakor if he hit him too hard, and Jhakor is pressured to say “no.” It’s only a matter of time until he actually starts to believe that.
Despite the condensed, Dardennes-like timeline suggested by its title, “All Day and a Night” spans decades as it cuts between Jhakor’s formative years on the streets and his first couple of days behind bars (where father and son are brought together in a prison reunion so fraught it makes “Starred Up” feel like a Kore-eda movie by comparison). The scenes between Sanders and Wright are too few and far between, but the inherited pain between them makes for a riveting sense of raw friction.
The rest of the movie feels unsure of itself by comparison. Cole is overly careful not to rhyme the film’s parallel timelines with each other in a way that might feel didactic; Jhakor and J.D. are different chapters of the same book, but crucially still their own men. And while that allows the writer-director to transpose the generations over each other in a way that contrasts the possibilities they were both denied with the personal choices they each made, J.D. and Jhakor individually get muddled along the way.
Running a long and often lugubrious two hours, “All Day and a Night” sometimes feels like several different movies smushed together. The “why” of it all is posited as a rhetorical question, as Jhakor only thinks of himself insofar as he’s broadly representational of the collective black experience, but Cole answers it by locating his protagonist in the midst of a massive gang war that never becomes as urgent as its bloodshed would suggest. It’s an unavoidable balancing act for a story about someone wrestling with their own agency in the face of systemic oppression, and it leads to some wrenchingly unsentimental moments as Jhakor braces for a son of his own, but the film wobbles on its way there.
The always watchable Yahya Abdul-Mateen II brings all sorts of toxic swagger to his role as a gang leader named Stunna, and the only thing that Stunna loves more than shooting people in the head is cooking Alice Water-worthy meals for his cronies. It’s a fun detail, but also emblematic of a movie that isn’t sure how to deploy its specifics. Flashbacks introduce us to a childhood friend of Jhakor’s named Lanmark — a smart kid who’s always looking for a way out of the life he was born into — and while that subplot eventually boomerangs home with tragic resonance, Lanmark is shoehorned into a story that isn’t sure where he belongs.
Some characters receive more attention than they merit (Cole misjudges our interest in Jhakor’s archnemesis), while many of the women don’t receive the attention they deserve (though Cole’s script is oh so close to reframing that bug as a feature, as it subtly meditates on how maternal figures are burdened with holding urban communities together). That strength is typical of a movie that’s most effective when dwelling on the roles and responsibilities of its characters. “Slavery taught black people how to survive,” Jhakor insists, “but not how to live. And that’s what we pass on to each other. My father taught me how to take my fucked-up life out on everyone else.”
It’s not for viewers — least of all white ones — to respond to that claim so much as it’s Jhakor’s prerogative to reckon with his place in the chain. Does hope start with the fathers, or does it start with their sons? By the time the dawn rises at the end of “All Day and a Night,” Cole has found the light between being a prisoner, and being in prison. It’s a matter of semantics, but if this is a film that often flubs the little things, it gets the most important detail right.
“All Day and a Night” will be available to stream on Netflix on Friday, May 1.