The brief glimpses of inner-city life in Black Panther are more affecting than the entirety of Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole’s second feature as a writer-director, the gangster melodrama All Day and a Night. Both are set in Oakland, California, but while Black Panther clearly establishes a generational legacy of resentment and anger in just a handful of scenes, All Day and a Night takes two full hours and reams of blunt, somber narration to ineffectively convey the same ideas.
There’s a point to be made somewhere in Cole’s muddled screenplay about the cycle of violence and the school-to-prison pipeline in African-American communities, but it gets lost in a confusing story about loyalty and betrayal among rival drug dealers.
The movie begins with Jahkor (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders) practicing some of his original rap lyrics while lurking in his car on a residential street at night, then getting out of the car — a gun in each hand — and entering a house to commit what appears to be cold-blooded murder. Jahkor shoots Malcolm (Stephen Barrington) and his girlfriend dead right in front of their daughter, with a cryptic comment about Malcolm knowing who Jahkor is. Why did Jahkor commit this heinous crime? Cole takes nearly the entire movie to get to Jahkor’s specific motivation, but it’s an anticlimactic throwaway that does nothing to redeem the character.
The other motivation for Jahkor’s crime is simply the environment he grew up in and when he enters prison having been convicted of murder, his pseudo-poetic narration talks all about how he’s been trapped in this situation since birth.
However, there’s no tragic inevitability to his crimes; Jahkor is consistently violent and mean, with little compassion for anyone around him. He’s sullen and withdrawn and often mumbles or barely speaks, which makes it hard to believe he could ever make it as a rap star. Following his arrival in prison, Jahkor flashes back to his childhood, which was marked by beatings from his drug-addict father JD (Jeffrey Wright), who passed those violent tendencies on to his son.
The movie also flashes back to about a year before Malcolm’s murder, building a scattered and not very interesting story about Jahkor and his buddy TQ (Isaiah John) getting caught in the crossfire between two factions trying to control the local drug trade. TQ is positioned as another bad influence on young Jahkor, the devil on his shoulder in contrast to the more upstanding Lamark (Christopher Meyer), who joins the military and is determined to escape their dangerous neighborhood for good. Jahkor continues to make his own choices, including his decision to join up with charismatic drug dealer Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of Aquaman and Watchmen), who gives him every opportunity to decline.
Amid these questionable activities, Jahkor is also half-heartedly pursuing a rap career, although there’s no real sense of passion or creativity to his efforts. This could have been a movie about the power of self-expression in hip-hop to elevate someone from difficult circumstances, along the lines of 8 Mile or Hustle & Flow, but Jahkor simply drops his rap ambitions to focus on other activities. His greater motivation is family, since his own father treated him so poorly; he eventually comes around to taking responsibility for the son he conceives with girlfriend Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye). That should be the character’s central arc, as he attempts to break the cycle that JD could never break (flashbacks show JD proclaiming Jahkor will be the one to make a better life for himself), but the movie keeps coming back to the crime storyline instead.
Even more of a missed opportunity is Jahkor’s chance to reconnect with JD, who went to prison when Jahkor was young and has been incarcerated in the same institution where his son ends up. The older JD is calmer and more thoughtful and Jahkor warily approaches his father in the prison yard. Despite his top billing, Wright gets less screen time than many of the other supporting actors and his performance as the volatile, younger JD doesn’t play to his strengths as an actor. Somewhere in here is a story about a young man coming to terms with his family legacy and creating a better future for his son, but it’s buried under the various gangster cliches.
Among those cliches is the movie’s treatment of women, who are either sex objects or martyrs, either way presented entirely via their relationships to the male characters, without any agency of their own. Jahkor treats Shantaye without any respect, and while part of the movie is about his personal growth, there’s no attempt to challenge his perspective on women. It comes off as lazy shorthand in a movie that at least occasionally hints at something more contemplative and challenging.
Wright’s presence in the cast is one indication that the story will rise above the familiar, but his scenes as the older JD don’t give him enough room to explore the character. Sanders found a well of emotion in a withdrawn, sometimes inexpressive character in his performance in Moonlight, but as Jahkor he just glowers and grumbles. Black Panther seems to have afforded Cole the chance to tell whatever kind of story he wanted, but All Day and a Night is a missed opportunity to build on that success.
Starring Ashton Sanders, Jeffrey Wright, Isaiah John, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Regina Taylor, Christopher Meyer and Shakira Ja’nai Paye, All Day and a Night premieres Friday on Netflix.
Somewhere in All Day and a Night is a story about a young man coming to terms with his family legacy, but it’s buried under various gangster cliches.