As of this week, the top ten most-streamed items on Netflix is dull list; last week’s Dangerous Lies is still there, along with a host of otherwise average-looking new series. Since we’re all still in the midst of a nationwide shutdown, finding that next new thing to watch can be overwhelming. On the top streaming list for films on Netflix is All Day and a Night, which was released May 1st; I was originally intrigued and planned on watching it right away, but decided instead to focus on what was popular (which I know is often a mistake). It does give me hope that this film, which boasts an impressive cast of unknown actors and an actual message, is being recognized by a general audience instead of being lost in the sea of endless new content. And although Dangerous Lies set the lowest bar possible in terms of direct-to-streaming movies, I assure you, I will not solely praise this film as a comparison. Rather, it’s an important movie that (mostly) succeeds in telling the story of a young man bound to an inescapable cycle of violence.
At the center of All Day and a Night is Jahkor (Ashton Sanders); a young man born and raised in Oakland California. The beginning of the film sees Jahkor executing a crime that will land him life in prison, setting off an introspective narration that explores the layered reasons for his actions. His father, J.D. (Jeffery Wright), is hardened from the street and addicted to cocaine, and eventually serves a life sentence as well. Their first scene together is hard to forget; J.D. mercilessly beats a ten-year-old Jahkor for losing a fight on the playground. His logic is that if he doesn’t learn how to survive violence inside, he’ll be eaten alive by the outside world. And although that kind of thinking is twisted and morally wrong, he has a point; Jahkor spends his entire life on the outside surrounded by violence. And the film has a question for the viewer, one that doesn’t really have an answer: was he destined to follow his father’s path? Is this cycle of violence escapable?
As I’ve said in many reviews, the director that writes their own story (or writer that directs their own story) should always be championed; whatever they produce, good or bad, is more likely to be a singular, uncompromised vision. And I’m happy to say that writer and director Joe Robert Cole does a very well at both his jobs. After cutting his teeth as a writer for both Black Panther and the excellent television show The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, he’s taken up the director’s chair and delivered a slick, gritty, and realistic image of Oakland. No detail is spared; from the cars, the clothing, and the dialect, the movie is frighteningly grounded. There’s an extensive long shot that was impressive too; a backwards tracking shot following a few characters through a club, the backroom, a back alley, a block party, and an illegal drifting event. It’s unexpectantly good looking, though I fear that only audience members with a keen eye for the difficulty of filmmaking will take any appreciation.
What really shines in All Day and a Night, though, is the acting. This kind of story can easily sour into something melodramatic, but thanks to a well-written script and dialogue, each scene is dripping with style and tension. Ashton, as Jahkor, is three-dimensional and complex; in truth, many of his decisions are wrong. He says the wrong things, acts with impulsive violence, and shuts down when faced with difficulty he cannot rise above. But the script knows this, and his flaws take center stage so the film can ask the audience to question whether or not Jahkor’s life has been predetermined by circumstance. I think the best films that asks things like this never really have an answer themselves. Again, how easy it would be to devolve into an after school special. But this movie doesn’t; Cole knows that if there was an easy answer, there wouldn’t be a movie to make in the first place.
Although it doesn’t fully explore every plot detail, and at times has trouble deciding between introspective drama and gang-warfare thriller, All Day and a Night is an important film that tackles difficult questions most of us find easier to ignore. If you’re looking for a solid drama with great acting and direction, and a few new things for your mind to chew on before bedtime, look no further.