The opening minutes of “All Day and a Night,” a brooding Netflix Original, dare you to find any sympathy for its lead character. We watch Jah (Ashton Sanders) stalk through a night-time East Oakland neighborhood, break into a house, and shoot a man and woman in cold blood in front of their daughter. At his sentencing, the mother of one of the victims furiously berates him, demanding to know why, and Jah sits there stone-faced and unrepentant. The movie gives us a monster out of a tabloid headline and then urges us to rediscover him as a human.
It’s a tough trick, and Joe Robert Cole, a screenwriter (“Black Panther”) making his writing-directing debut, isn’t always up to the task. This is a grim, at times lurid tale with hard observations about growing up poor, Black, and male in America — about the cycles of defeat that can land multiple generations in prison — and many of the details have the sting of the rap songs that permeate the soundtrack. Elsewhere, however, “All Day and a Night” plays like an urban crime thriller made with more earnestness than style.
The movie definitely benefits from the presence of Sanders, who played the teenage Chiron in the middle panel of “Moonlight” (2016) and was a galvanizing Bigger Thomas in a recent, little-seen version of “Native Son." Lean and slight of build, the actor nevertheless has a powerful physical presence, and he’s able to convey the churning anger, confusion, and hurt locked away behind Jah’s impassive macho exterior. Sanders’s focused intensity meshes in fascinating ways with the more mercurial, outwardly violent performance of Jeffrey Wright as Jah’s father, JD, who beat his son in childhood to “toughen him up” and who now finds himself sharing a prison yard with the boy.
“All Day and a Night” shuttles back and forth between the present day, with Jah adjusting to correctional life, and various stages of his youth and young adulthood; the editor (Mako Kamitsuna) has his hands full keeping us properly situated in time and doesn’t always succeed. The crosscutting arguably blunts the drama’s main point, too, which is that while Jah can’t and shouldn’t be forgiven for his crimes, his story — as well as his father’s — has to be seen in the context of a crushing systemic inequity that keeps people like them on their knees. “I was born in prison,” Jah says, and the irony, ultimately, is that he finds a kind of inner freedom behind bars.
In flashbacks (in which the young Jah is played by Jalyn Hall), Cole shows us how the father’s physical abuse and drug addiction lead to parental screaming matches, a boy’s depression, and failure in a failed school system. Street life and JD teach him that it’s a “dog eat man” world and that the only way to survive is to take it while taking it out on the weak. Jah has one friend (Ramone Hamilton) who aims at doing well in school and getting out, but optimism here is for the naïve. Gang-banging and rap are seen as the only way to escape East Oakland, and while Jah gets a job clerking in an upscale mall shoe store, the looks on the faces of the white shoppers tell him and us all we need to know.
Will Jah repeat his father’s mistakes? Will he pass on that legacy to his infant son with girlfriend Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye)? “All Night and a Day” doesn’t appear to give its central figure a way out of a brutal and narrowing tunnel, where his acquaintances include a coke-dealing best friend (Isaiah John), a swaggering local rap star (James Earl), and a neighborhood kingpin (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who needs some dirty deeds done. A viewer might be excused for feeling frustration over Jah’s terrible decisions for most of the running time, even as the script struggles to contextualize those decisions as the helpless flailing of a stunted young man.
Elsewhere, “All Day” comes close to glorifying the gunplay and gang violence it condemns, and the film’s climax in the prison yard sends a mighty mixed message, bloodily settling old scores while implying that Jah has matured and come to peace with his demons. For his first movie as director, Cole clearly wants to do it all. Sometimes all is too much.
ALL DAY AND A NIGHT
Written and directed by Joe Robert Cole. Starring Ashton Sanders, Jeffrey Wright. Available on Netflix. 121 minutes. R (strong violence, pervasive language, drug use, some sexual content/nudity)