Joe Robert Cole’s second feature film, All Day and a Night

All Day And A Night – Ashton Sanders, Jeffrey Wright (Photo Netflix / Matt Kennedy)

There is an earnestness to this deeply felt urban tale that seems personal, sincere and insular. Unfortunately, that guarded sense is not enough to make this cliché narrative, about a troubled young man headed down the wrong path, more than just another sad song.

Jahkor Abraham Lincoln (Ashton Sanders, Moonlight) is a product of the mean streets of Oakland, California. His mom nurtures her young adult son when she can, but gives equal attention to his volatile father JD (Jeffrey Wright). Dad’s quick temper and criminal activities have kept him behind bars or on his way there most of his life.

Can’t blame Jahkor for struggling to find direction. The hopeful part of him wants to be a rapper. The grim part gets caught up in a thug life involving rival gangs and murder. At a trial the mother-in-law of a homicide victim says to him, “You say you knew my son-in-law, but you won’t say how.” He responds to her only with inner thoughts like: “People say they want to know why, but they really don’t.”

Oakland was the setting for the gentrification drama Blindspotting, a searing indictment of the rich moving in and the poor moving out. The S.F. Bay city was also the location of the tragic drama Fruitvale Station, an award-winning examination of racism and police malfeasance. All Day… does not run that deep in scope. Its claustrophobic feel, with depictions of homes, close-up street scenes and prison yards and scant images of the city, does not pan out.

It’s hard to get a feel for Oakland. Impossible to get a glimpse of anything outside the perimeter of a tight-knit community. If you’re looking for a global message or a city view there are none. Instead the film rests entirely on the validity and accessibility of one young man’s sheltered existence, and that experience does not resonate the way it should.

Jahkor only smiles when he’s freestyling at a mic or romancing his baby momma Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye). Otherwise ill-fated gloom colors his poor choices. There’s so much misery in his life that his perpetual angst becomes a turnoff and any redemption seems too little too late.

Hard to determine why writer/director Joe Robert Cole’s script is so entrenched in bleakness. Cole is the co-writer of Black Panther and has been a writer on the American Crime Story series. Surely, with that pedigree, he knows how to create engaging, challenging storylines with solid moments of hopefulness and atmosphere that makes a crime/drama feel real. So why this?

As a director, Cole sets the scenes up and lets them go where they may. If drama or chemistry doesn’t show up, there is no remedy. Nor does his direction exhibit a visual style that would make the footage stunning. If Cole attempts this kind of film again, he should re-watch John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood or check out some of Sidney Lumet’s NYC films (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) to get a better grasp of how filmmakers can capture urban spirit, explore the environment and use it as a canvas to convey a vibrant city vibe to audiences.

The musical score (Michael Abel) is putrid and Jahkor’s raps are lame–he’s no Jay-Z. The camerawork (Jessica Lee Gagne) fails to turn potentially evocative locations into indelible images. While the editing (Mako Kamitsuna) exasperates lethargic pacing and doesn’t make confusing back-and-forth flashbacks any more discernible. The tech crew gets a save from Kay Lee’s production design, Alex Brandeburg’s set decoration and Antoinette Messam’s costumes, which are fairly realistic.

Ashton Sanders was a vision as Chiron in the classic, Oscar-winning film Moonlight. There is something about his look and demeanor that is mesmerizing. The rest of the cast is sufficient and professional, though one performance towers above the rest. Jeffrey Wright’s take on JD, fatherly but incorrigible, is fluid, raw and explosive. Only a few actors can get this primal. Only the chosen can be great with less-than-great material. He’s a rare breed.

The landscape for urban dramas, told from a black perspective, will be full in coming weeks. Films like Blue Story (London) and Charm City (Baltimore) are on the horizon and boast lively rhythms, electric casts and creative swag.

Joe Robert Cole continues to establish his presence as a filmmaker and hopefully his next venture will benefit from the lessons he’s learned from directing his second feature film.

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