LONDON: That director Joe Robert Cole’s CV already includes writing and producing credits on projects including “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and “Black Panther” sheds some light on why Netflix was so keen to have him write and direct “All Day and a Night” — a hard-hitting drama set in Oakland, California.
Aspiring rapper Jahkor (“Moonlight” star Ashton Sanders) dreams of escaping his community’s incessant grind of violence and crime but, as the film begins, he makes a decision that lands him in prison alongside his father J.D. (Jeffrey Wright). As Jahkor reflects on his childhood and his abusive relationship with J.D., Cole fleshes out a backstory of seemingly inevitable cycles of behavior: crime to make ends meet, violence to carve out respect, fear of passing on a bad example to a next generation doomed to repeat those mistakes.
The sense of pessimistic inevitability is pervasive. This is not an easy, light film to settle into for a couple of hours. Cole and cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné paint Jahkor’s world in gloomy, oppressive tones and, though the use of flashbacks sometimes disrupts the flow of the film, there’s no narrative let up as the audience learns what caused Jahkor to succumb to the cycle of violence.
Sanders is remarkable to watch, and packs his portrayal of Jahkor with simmering rage, barely restrained fury and heartbreaking acceptance of inevitable societal prejudice. Wright avoids a one-dimensional portrayal of the abusive father and, perhaps surprisingly, the meandering father-son relationships in Cole’s film offer a glimmer of a redemptive story arc.
By its nature, “All Day and a Night” can be tough to assimilate for audiences not directly acquainted with gang-afflicted US neighborhoods — which is a good thing, as the movie avoids feeling watered-down or abridged in a bid to be more accessible. Cole carefully cultivates an atmosphere of background anxiety — a sense that, at any moment, violence could flare up and Jahkor’s life could be derailed. That makes for an uncomfortable watch, but a worthwhile one. And although the slightly more upbeat end to the film feels a little at odds with the unrelentingly bleak majority, “All Day and a Night” take viewers on a journey. An uncomfortable journey through the emotional wringer, perhaps, but a journey nonetheless.