Written by: Hannah Tran | April 30th, 2020
All Day and a Night (Joe Robert Cole, 2020) 1½ out of 4 stars.
In Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole’s latest work, All Day and a Night, the structure of the carceral state is reexamined through the lens of the family. After young Jahkor is imprisoned for murder, he finds himself placed in the same prison as his distant father. But while this central story of paternal struggle contains this film’s greatest message, it is not necessarily where All Day and a Night chooses to place its focus. In fact, that part of the problem often feels miles away. Instead, Cole largely spends Jahkor’s time lost in the past. Taking a look back at his life, Jahkor searches for answers regarding what brought him there and how he can move forward. But in this search, the overarching message of Jakhor’s story often feels as if it is being lost in the overwhelming multitude of directions that his mind takes him.
“If you had all day and a night to understand your life . . . where would you begin?” This is the question that Jahkor asks at the beginning of his story. Unfortunately, it never feels as if the filmmakers are equipped to answer this question, taking his story in what seems to be an infinite amount of directions that never fully coalesce into a whole answer. Lost in the jumble of Jahkor’s life as he struggles to reconcile the domestic and gang violence that surrounded his youth, the proliferation of drug use in the area he grew up, the police brutality he experienced firsthand, the everyday racial attacks directed at him in places like his work, a turbulent relationship with his girlfriend and mother of his child, and an inability to transform his rapping skills into a successful career, All Day and a Night bites off much more than it can chew. While Cole is clearly seeking to speak on the truthful and enduring injustices of the black experience, the plethora of issues he attempts to take on only make for an unfocused perspective that never is able to give any of these experiences the time or attention that they deserve.
In its attempt to answer its central question, All Day and a Night overstays its welcome due to its own imprecision. Most of the narrative feels too detached from the central father-son relationship that should stand as its emotional anchor. And, sure enough, the moments in which it does manage to turn its attention to this relationship are the moments in which the narrative is best able to express its paramount themes of love, the injustices of the criminal justice system, and the ability of one to reject their past and move forward into their future.
The entire film feels like a battle between internal and external expression. At one point, Jahkor comments on how police often sound like their portrayals on TV. Unfortunately, the dialogue of the everyday people surrounding Jahkor doesn’t sound all that different. It either comes off as unrealistically dramatized or unbearably unstylized and void of character. Jahkor’s internal monologue, on the other hand, almost always feels rooted in the former, seeming far too aware of his own condition.
Nevertheless, Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders delivers a solid performance in the lead role of Jahkor, elevating many of the movie’s slower-moving sequences with a nuanced range of emotion. And while Westworld star Jeffrey Wright, as his father, delivers a surprisingly underwhelming performance that strangely manages to be both stiff and overexaggerated at the same time, the standout supporting cast, from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Shakira Ja-Nai Payne to Kelly Jenrette, more than makes up for this. Although very violent and direct in its approach, All Day and a Nighthas more than positive aims in its heart. But while it does manage to reach a hopeful and satisfying conclusion for the characters at its center, it takes a muddled middle section lost in its own never-ending intentions to get there.