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It’s an unusually stacked week for new films on Netflix (one they might regret when pre-pandemic content starts to dry up) with a teen comedy, a B-thriller and a romantic documentary all launching before the weekend, a feast for viewers at home but a glut that could overshadow one of their finer offerings quietly releasing alongside. All Day and a Night, a tough-minded drama from Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole, might not be quite worthy enough for their awards slate (although it’s a damn sight more compelling than The Two Popes …) but it’s a step up from what one might expect of an unhyped May movie from the streamer. Think of it as a classier boutique release, deserving of a higher shelf placement.
We first meet Jahkor (Ashton Sanders) as he’s breaking into the house of a couple before shooting them both dead in front of their young daughter. The film them splits into three timelines, each delicately balanced by Cole, as we see Jahkor as a child (played with heartbreaking conviction by Jalyn Hall) abused by his addict father JD (Jeffrey Wright), Jahkor getting involved in criminal actvities in the months before the killing and Jahkor in prison. It’s a reflective movie, with a reflective title, as he revisits the ups and downs that led him to a life sentence and while the film offers explanations, it never offers excuses, with a considerable grey area at its centre.
What’s initially most striking about All Day and a Night (other than the intensity of Sanders’ stare) is just how much it feels like an actual movie. Discarding the flat TV palette so many other Netflix-funded film-makers seem happy to stick with, writer-director Cole clearly has something a lot grander in his sights and he squeezes every last drop from his limited budget, working as if the intention was for a far bigger screen. It’s stylish work but Cole avoids gimmicky flourishes, which would have been an easy fallback given the material, and instead maintains an evocative aesthetic while providing a number of standout visual sequences – one particular one-shot party that takes us from inside a venue and out through the streets is more cinematic than most Netflix originals combined. Some of his turf war plotting is a bit muddled but it’s his character study of a boy who’s not quite sure how to be a man that proves more interesting.
Via an often insightful and often hackneyed voiceover, Jahkor talks about the prison he was born into, how as a young black man living in a working-class neighbourhood he has always been surrounded by four walls, they just became more noticeable when he was sent away. He speaks of the little cuts, the micro-aggressions he has to encounter from the the teacher who has already given up on him to the racist white customer at the shoe store where he works who’s already judged him to the cops who are eager to imprison him, the cuts that slowly make him bleed. His toxic father is both aggressor and victim himself, an addict with mental health issues without the help he so sorely needs. Cole makes some moves toward blaming a bigger system, one without the resources or empathy to help people at the bottom, but ensures that his characters are never just victims, they’re active in their choices even if their choices are limited. It’s a messy world and Cole refuses to make it more palatable for us, inspiring tough questions while withholding easy answers.
There’s a small but ferocious turn from Wright but it’s Sanders who dominates, building both on his standout performance from Moonlight and his film-elevating work since in Native Son and Captive State. While I look forward to seeing him expand his repertoire with something a bit more left-field in the future, he’s on fine form again here, rising to the challenge of his biggest lead to date, drawing us into Jahkor’s plight even when his actions are hard to defend. He’s a difficult character, the result of a difficult father, and while their scenes together are limited, Cole refrains from obvious soapy conflict, opting instead, finally, for something far more believable and far more poignant. Jahkor is being told not to follow in his father’s footsteps, including by his father himself, but not being given the tools or room to do so. It’s a sad but not entirely hopeless tale with an ending that offers room for interpretation, based on the viewer’s optimism or pessimism over what could come next.
All Day and a Night is a weightier alternative to the average Netflix original and while imperfectly realised and scrappily plotted at times, it’s another promising sign that, away from the easy-to-digest content, there’s room on the platform for much much more.
Source: The Guardian
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