Joe Robert Cole's "All Day and a Night" is a tough and anguished drama that somberly spirals around the circular tragedies of crime and incarceration.
It's the directorial debut of Cole, who co-wrote "Black Panther" and penned a pair of episodes to "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story." He delivers an inconsistent and disjointed but tersely earnest and raw tale about a young African American man, Jahkor (Ashton Sanders, of "Moonlight"), who grows up with violence and drug addiction all around, and becomes ensnared by it.
Cole, who also wrote the film, doesn't enter the story from the beginning but loops back to it. Our first picture of 20-year-old Jahkor is as he creeps into an Oakland, California, apartment and, after a few quick words, executes a man and his wife in front of their daughter. It's not an easy way to engender us to Jahkor's plight, but "All Day and a Night" dares you to empathize with him.
"Everybody on the outside looks in pretending like they would do better, or worse," Jah narrates.
From behind bars, Jahkor looks back on the path that led him to that night. "All Day and a Night" is a meditative montage of key incidents from young life — an introspective journey made more tangible by Jahkor's estranged father (Jeffrey Wright), who has long been imprisoned in the same penitentiary. Jahkor has the feeling, he heavily intones, "of being part of the same story, on repeat."
"All Day and a Night" struggles to cohere these episodes, and its aim often goes astray. Cole sometimes embraces and sometimes deviates from the clichés of the genre, working in the mold of filmmakers like John Singleton ("Boyz n the Hood") to pursue a gritty, grimly hopeless and explosively violent portrait of inner-city California life.
Sanders' tender, scarred Chiron in the middle chapter "Moonlight" was arguably the heart of Barry Jenkins' film. Here, he again suggests depths in a soulful performance, both callous and sensitive. Wright, as usual, brings an expressive gravity to the film, though he's underused. And Shakira Ja'Nai Paye ("Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse") makes a natural presence as Jahkor's pregnant girlfriend.
At turns brutal and compassionate, "All Day and a Night" is admirably ambitious even if it remains too scattered and distant to ever come to life. But there are enough flashes of something more here to make you eager for what Cole, and especially Sanders, do next.
"All Day and a Night," a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for strong violence, pervasive language, drug use and some sexual content/nudity. Running time: 121 minutes. Two stars out of four.