by Jacob Smith —
Hollywood loves to make movies depicting “the black struggle.” But black audiences may be tired of the same stories of people who look like them trying to make it in America. While “All Day and a Night” won’t have box office receipts to offer an answer, the lukewarm reaction to its concept may suggest they are.
Many movies are a temporary escape from the real world issues. Three hours of giant monsters fighting each other in the Avengers franchise allows audiences to forget real life for a time. But fiction that depicts the viewer’s reality isn’t an escape.
“All Day and a Night,” the latest film from Netflix, tells the story of a young black man dealing with the reality of his circumstances.
Ashton Sanders plays the older Jahkor, called Jah, a young man who has just been convicted of double murder. Jalyn Hall plays a younger version of the character.
Jah is sentenced to life in prison where he begins to unravel his choices and reconciles with his father, J.D., played by Jeffrey Wright. J.D. is also a convict at the same county jail, to coming to terms with the fact that he may not be there for his child.
The movie uses an unusual storytelling technique, employing a series of flashbacks to move the story along and explain events that led to the moment Jah pulls the trigger on Malcolm, a rival drug kingpin. Growing up with a violent father and a hapless mother, Jah looked to the streets for answers on how to escape his reality only to take the exact same route as his father, a violent man who believed that brute strength in the neighborhood and beyond were the only answers to every problem—only much faster.
One flashback shows Jah decide not to play possum after being robbed, following his father chastising him for being weak. Jah’s situation is exacerbated by the fact that J.D. is addicted to drugs while his mother struggles to hold the family together.
But most black people did not have an upbringing that mirrors films such as “Menace II Society“ or “South Central.” As the film attempts to find a common ground with its audience, its storytelling destroys that bridge in the opening minutes.
Jah breaks into his victims’ home and murders a couple in front of of their teenage daughter. Typically in storytelling, a protagonist who commits a heinous act must have good justification for doing so. Otherwise, your audience sees the character as a villain and won’t connect with them. “All Day and a Night” suffers from this fatal flaw—Jah’s motivations never justifies the murders—and the film never recovers.
While anti-heroes typically do bad things for the right reasons, “Black Panther” cowriter Joe Robert Cole tells a story about American anti-villains, people who believe their cause is just while their methods remain inherently evil. The dream of escaping the hood is one that many in poorer neighborhoods have but few achieve by means that will not devastate those around them.
“All Day and a Night” displays great acting from up-and-comer Ashton Sanders as well as veteran Jeffrey Wright. Sanders, who has built a solid catalog of roles in the last few years is a strong standout. Sanders’ character is anything but redeemable, a story is sadly seen too many times in fiction and reality: A person who grew up with no moral compass and few options who ends up where society’s odds place him. A SoundCloud rapper with ties to the criminal underworld, his character looks for a way out for himself and his future son until he accepts that day will never come.
A brief appearance by Regina Taylor as Jah’s grandmother breathes life into the movie. She is the voice of reason while calling out Jah on the excesses that land him in trouble.
Jeffrey Wright’s performance as a drug addicted low-life and the father of the protagonist will have people talking the most. While it is hardly an Oscar-worthy performance, Wright displays a side to the actor we haven’t seen before in the persona of a hardcore California criminal. Similar to his son’s motivations, the character wants his son to live a better life than him. When the brutal realization hits him that all he provided was the path that led three generations, which includes him, his father and his son, to the same prison yard, the reality of failure stings and audiences are hit like a sack of bricks.
“All Day and a Night” is beautifully shot, with its cinematography making even the worst areas of Oakland look attractive. But its solid visual aesthetic and good acting can’t overcome its muddy narrative and poor storytelling choices.
See or Skip: “All Day and a Night” looks great for a Netflix film, but the two-hour runtime is too much for a film with no one to root for.
(Edited by Lenny Ruvaga and Allison Elyse Gualtieri.)