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. So, 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 provide 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, after being sentenced to life in prison, begins to unravel his choices. He also reconciles with his father, J.D., played by Jeffrey Wright — a convict imprisoned at the same county jail. Finally, he must come 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, taking the same route as his violent father — both convinced that brute strength in the neighborhood and beyond were remedies to every problem.
Contrary to the prevailing American stereotype, most Blacks do not have an upbringing that mirrors themes as presented in films like “Menace II Society” or “South Central.” Thus, as the movie seeks to establish 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 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 justify the murders — and the film never recovers.
“All Day and a Night” displays great acting from up-and-comer Sanders as well as veteran 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 whose story is sadly witnessed far too often in fiction and reality. He remains a man who has grown up without a moral compass and few options, ending up where society’s odds routinely place such a man.
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.
Wright’s performance as a drug-addicted lowlife and the father of the protagonist will have people talking the most. While it may merit Oscar-worthy accolades, the actor displays a side rarely seen in the persona of a hardcore California criminal. Both he and his son want the man-child they sire to live better lives than they. 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 him to the core — perhaps causing the same effect for the audience.
“All Day and a Night” is beautifully shot with cinematography which makes even the worst areas of Oakland look attractive. But its solid visual aesthetic and noteworthy acting cannot overcome the film’s muddy narrative and poor storytelling choices.