Review: Netflix’s ‘All Day and a Night’ is a bruising, empathetic gangland drama

Ashton Sanders and Jeffrey Wright in the movie 'All Day and a Night'
Ashton Sanders, left, and Jeffrey Wright in the movie “All Day and a Night.”

Halfway through the tough, bruising Netflix drama “All Day and a Night,” a young man named Jahkor (Ashton Sanders) jumps on a bicycle and rides through his Oakland neighborhood. Angry and in search of a confrontation, he is briefly distracted by several small kids riding alongside him, smiling and laughing as the ominous background score turns suddenly sweet and lyrical. The kids eventually recede into the background as Jahkor pedals furiously onward, turning away from this dreamlike vision of carefree childhood — a glimpse of a happier life that feels as vivid and piercing as a memory.

Memory looms heavily and sometimes heavy-handedly over “All Day and a Night,” which drifts backward and forward in time as it pieces together moments from Jahkor’s life. Written and directed by Joe Robert Cole, it’s by turns a gangland thriller, a prison drama and a coming-of-age story, wrapped in a somber meditation on black male identity.

For the record:

1:17 PM, May. 01, 2020An earlier version of this review misidentified Regina Taylor’s character as Jahkor’s mother. She plays his aunt.

When we first meet Jahkor, he is on his way to commit a ghastly crime, the motive for which is the narrative’s governing mystery. Behind bars, he is reunited with some of the men he knew back home, including his own father (Jeffrey Wright), an embittered, violent man who taught him to show no mercy in a world that would surely show him none.

In the first of several flashbacks, we see an adolescent Jahkor (Jalyn Hall) being bullied on a school playground — and experiencing the satisfaction and the consequences of repaying violence with violence. It’s a thrill that sadly never goes out of fashion. Like some of the other anguished brooders Sanders has played — in films as distinct as “Native Son,” “The Equalizer 2” and the incomparable “Moonlight” — Jahkor is a man of few words but eloquent glances and gestures; he’s long since learned to internalize his pain.


He does carry on a recurring interior monologue, which spells out a crushingly familiar narrative of drug dealing and gang warfare, of everyday racism and mass incarceration. Death here can be as swift and shattering as a bullet, as punishingly slow as a prison sentence. Jahkor’s two closest friends seem to represent opposing responses: The wily TQ (Isaiah John) leans into a life of crime, often drawing Jahkor in with him, while the more optimistic Lamark (Christopher Meyer) tries to escape — and pays dearly for it.

Ashton Sanders and Shakira Ja'nai Paye in the movie "All Day and a Night."

Not all is pain and suffering. An aspiring hip-hop musician, Jahkor often retreats into his music; an early scene finds him rapping quietly to himself in his car, nurturing a moment of calm before the storm. His mother (Kelly Jenrette) and his aunt (Regina Taylor) are a source of strength and occasional tough love. And in the months before his fateful crime, Jahkor rejoices at the prospect of having a baby with his girlfriend, Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye), seeing a way to make up for the proverbial sins of the father — a dream that comes crashing down when he finds himself following in his dad’s wayward footsteps.

“Slavery taught black people how to survive but not how to live,” Jahkor murmurs in voice-over, and what we see on the screen — in images shot with nimble grace by Jessica Lee Gagné — bears out that statement with sad, ruthless clarity. The challenge for Cole and his skilled collaborators is to capture this painful reality, to evoke an ongoing history of psychological and systemic bondage, without reducing those hard truths to deterministic cliches.


And for the most part, despite the odd melodramatic lurch or over-emphatic line of dialogue, they succeed. The beats of this story are easy enough to recognize, which is not to say that they’re formulaic. Sanders’ quietly mesmerizing performance refuses to let anyone cast Jahkor as either victim or villain, instead locating a tricky middle ground. “All Day and a Night” lingers and sometimes meanders in that gray zone, where the story can accrue texture and feeling and emerge as more than the sum of its plot mechanics.

Crucially, the movie doesn’t seem to be mimicking so much as conversing with its many inspirations, among them “Boyz n the Hood,” “A Prophet” and particularly “Black Panther,” which Cole cowrote with Ryan Coogler. That movie had the inspiration to root a fantastical superhero epic in a grounded, utterly plausible portrait of contemporary Oakland. And like this bleaker work, it tells the story of an abandoned boy, a vanished father and a determination not to let yesterday’s mistakes become tomorrow’s tragedies.

‘All Day and a Night’

Rated: R, for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and some sexual content/nudity

Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute

Playing: Available on Netflix