Review: ‘All Day and a Night,’ starring Ashton Sanders, Jeffrey Wright, Regina Taylor, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Isaiah John, Kelly Jenrette and Shakira Ja’Nai Paye

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ashton Sanders and Jeffrey Wright in “All Day and a Night” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

“All Day and a Night”

Directed by Joe Robert Cole

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oakland, California, the drama “All Day and a Night” has a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class, lower-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: A young African American man struggles to become a law-abiding citizen, but he falls into the same criminal lifestyles of his father and paternal grandfather.

Culture Audience: “All Day and a Night” will appeal primarily to people who want to see the same negative clichés of African Americans in ghettos that several movies and TV shows have already done.

Ashton Sanders and Shakira Ja’nai Paye in “All Day and a Night” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

If people wonder why so many racists automatically think African American men are violent thugs, a movie like “All Day and a Night” just fuels that racism, because this unoriginal and uninspired movie panders to the worst negative stereotypes of African Americans. The fact that “All Day and a Night” was written and directed by an African American—Joe Robert Cole, who co-wrote “Black Panther” with director Ryan Coogler—doesn’t excuse it or make it better.

There’s a reason why predominantly African American dramas such as “Black Panther,” “Creed” and “Hidden Figures” did so well at the box office, while predominantly African American films about black criminals, such as the modern-day remakes of “Superfly” and “Shaft,” turned out to be flops. (And it’s probably why “All Day and a Night” went straight to Netflix instead of being a theatrical release.)

People are hungry for diverse African American stories that aren’t about the old, tired stereotype of African Americans being “criminals from the ‘hood.” This “criminals from the ‘hood” movie might have been fresh and original back in the early 1990s, with the success of “Boyz N the Hood,” “New Jack City” and “Menace II Society.” But today’s movie audiences are much more aware of the diversity in African American culture and want to see that diversity reflected on screen. Filmmakers can do better in representing that diversity, instead of lazily falling back on racist clichés that have been done already in countless movies and TV shows.

Set in Oakland, California, “All Day and a Night” is a story about a man in his early 20s named Jahkor Abraham Lincoln (played by Ashton Sanders), who comes from a family where generations of the men in the family have ended up in prison. In voiceovers throughout the movie, an adult Jahkor says things like, “By the time my father was 6, his father had been to jail nine times” and “When violence is all around you, you get used to it.”

It’s shown from the beginning of the film that Jahkor is a cold-blooded murderer—he snuck into a home and shot a man and a woman to death in front of their young daughter—and he’s been sentenced to life in prison for the crime. The rest of the film has flashbacks to various points in Jahkor’s life to show how and why he ended up this way.

There’s absolutely nothing unique or interesting about Jahkor to make audiences think that he was a talented and well-meaning kid who had the bad luck to fall through the cracks in an uncaring society. In fact, Jahkor—who is a mediocre aspiring rapper (how cliché)—grew up with the support of a hard-working mother, a loving grandmother and a schoolmate friend who has goals to get out of the ghetto and do something better with his life than becoming a criminal. But the movie clearly shows that Jahkor ignored these positive role models and instead chose the “thug life” of his own free will. Therefore, he (and this movie’s audience) can’t really blame other people for his choices.

“All Day and a Night” star Sanders played the teenage protagonist Chiron in the Oscar-winning 2016 African American drama “Moonlight” in the protagonist’s adolescent years, before Chiron became a drug-dealing gangster nicknamed Black. Just like “Moonlight,” the story in “All Day and a Night” also shows different stages of the protagonist’s life: as a child, a teenager and an adult. The protagonist in both movies also has an abusive, cocaine-addicted parent—in “Moonlight,” it’s the mother; in “All Day and a Night,” it’s the father.

But what made “Moonlight” different, besides the almost poetic way that the movie was made, was that the gangster protagonist turned out to be a sensitive, closeted gay man who’s had a longtime inner struggle about his sexuality. It’s also why “Moonlight” didn’t have the African American ghetto movie cliché of the protagonist being a deadbeat dad with an angry baby mama by the time he’s 22.

And the protagonist in “Moonlight” really had no positive, law-abiding role models in his home: His mother was an abusive crackhead, and the only male role model who was nice to him as a kid was one of the mother’s boyfriends, who was also her drug dealer. “All Day and a Night” is no “Moonlight,” although writer/director Cole obviously wants this cliché-ridden movie to be as widely acclaimed as “Moonlight.” That’s not going to happen.

“All Day and a Night” tells the story in bits and pieces and in flashbacks. As a child in middle school, Jahkor (played by Jalyn Emil Hall) does poorly in academics, and he’s bullied at school. When his father James Daniel Lincoln, also known as JD (played by Jeffrey Wright), finds out that Jahkor has been bullied, his response is to brutally beat Jahkor, tell him that he needs to toughen up, and order Jahkor to beat up the school bully the next time Jakhor sees the bully. Jahkor follows his father’s orders and gets suspended from school.

In Jahkor’s household, Jahkor’s mother Delanda (played by Kelly Jenrette) just stands by passively and does nothing to stop the abuse, since she’s afraid of JD, who’s abusive and threatening to her too. The movie implies that Delanda is one of those women who thinks it’s better to have a man who’s abusive than to have no man at all, even if her child is being abused too. Delanda loves Jahkor and is kind to him, but she doesn’t have the inner strength to get help for the domestic violence, and to keep herself and her child out of harm’s way.

Jahkor’s maternal grandmother Tommetta (played by Regina Taylor), who does not live with the family, is the most positive role model in Jahkor’s life. She encourages Jahkor to follow his dreams and tells him that there are other ways to solve problems than through violence. JD openly scoffs and ridicules Tommetta, by telling her that she’s making Jahkor soft and that she’s too religious. Meanwhile, JD’s life goes on a downward spiral, as he becomes a coke-addicted, drug-dealing murderer, who ends up in the same prison as Jahkor. A scene in the movie also reveals that JD also spent some time in a psychiatric institution, which is a part of JD’s background that is stated, but not shown, in the movie.

The movie makes a half-hearted attempt to show that Delanda and her mother tried the best they could to help Jahkor. In a meeting with Jahkor’s middle-school teacher Ms. Ferguson (played by Baily Hopkins), Delanda and her mother seem to be part of the problem, when they react in disbelief at Jahkor’s low grades. Tommetta says that Jahkor is smarter than the grades that he’s been getting, and they say that he just needs someone to believe in him.

There are a few things wrong with the way this movie handles the parent-teacher involvement in Jahkor’s life. First, the movie tries to make it look like the school system failed Jahkor in his education, when in actuality, the mother and the grandmother should bear some of the blame too. These parental figures have an attitude that someone at the school needs to believe in Jahkor, yet the movie doesn’t show how the mother and the grandmother should be those people who believe in Jahkor, instead of making it the government’s problem.

The grandmother, who’s of retirement age, could have had the time to tutor Jahkor in the subjects that she felt she could help him with the most. The mother and the grandmother also could have enrolled Jahkor in free after-school activities, regardless if he was academically gifted or not. They live in Oakland (not a deprived rural area), and a big city like Oakland has a lot of free resources for underprivileged youth.

These are the pro-active things that parents do when they don’t rely on schools to teach their children things like morality, respect and a good work ethic. And you don’t have to be economically privileged to have these kinds of values. But, of course, that doesn’t fit the movie’s narrative that a kid like Jahkor is “doomed” to repeat the criminal activities of his father and other men in his family. It’s truly offensive how this movie portrays most African American men as criminals and most African American women as passive followers who just go along with what the (criminal) men in their lives want.

As for Jahkor’s peer group, his closest friends include “bad boy” TQ (played by Kaleb Alexander Roberts as a child, and Isaiah John as an adult) and “good boy” Lamark (played by Ramone Hamilton as a child, and Christopher Meyer as an adult). Lamark is the aforementioned friend who has ambitions to not be a negative ghetto stereotype. Lamark comes from a stable, loving, two-parent household with a younger sister. Lamark’s family ends up being somewhat of a surrogate family to Jahkor.

Jahkor utters this line in one of the movie’s voiceovers: “Outside the ‘hood, people think every family is messed-up like mine. Lots of people take care of business, and if they ain’t you, you put your faith in them.” The irony of this statement is that this entire movie is about the “messed-up African American family” stereotype, so it just reinforces the negative images that “people outside the ‘hood” have of African Americans who are “from the ‘hood.”

Lamark ends up volunteering for the Army, where he comes home wounded from the war in Afghanistan. As a result of his war wounds, Lamark becomes a paraplegic. Jahkor becomes bitter that his friend “who did everything right” and served the U.S. government as a loyal soldier ended up in this tragic situation. It’s an excuse for this movie to show why Jahkor turned to a life of crime.

About a year before the murders, a flashback shows that Jahkor had started dating a young woman close to his age named Shantaye (played by Shakira Ja’nai Paye). She ends up doing the most cliché thing that African American women do in ghetto movies like this one: She gets pregnant while not being married to the baby’s father, who doesn’t have a steady job.

When she tells Jahkor about the pregnancy, he’s elated, but they don’t seem too concerned about how they’re going to pay to raise this child, which is yet another racist stereotype that implies that they’re going to live off of government welfare. What Shantaye does for money isn’t really made clear in this movie, because this film obviously doesn’t to want to show African American women as educated career women.

By the time Jahkor finds out that he’s going to become a father, he has a criminal record that includes armed robbery, resisting arrest and home invasion. These arrests are not shown in the movie, but the information is stated after he’s brought to the police station in another scene in the movie when Jahkor is questioned about another crime. “All Day and a Night” is not told in chronological order, so viewers have to keep up with all the random flashbacks.

Because he’s a convicted felon, Jahkor has trouble finding a real job. He gets more motivated to make an honest living after finding out that he’s going to be a father. So, he calls in a favor to a straight-laced friend, and lands a job as a sales clerk at an athletic shoe store, because the person who previously had the position had suddenly quit. In one scene, a white woman goes in the store and sees Jahkor moving some shoe boxes, and she suspiciously asks him what he’s doing, because she thinks he’s a thief. Jahkor tells her that he works there, but she backs out of the store apprehensively and leaves.

In a voiceover, Jahkor says racist incidents like this are like little cuts that add up to big emotional wounds. However, it’s hard to feel too sorry for Jahkor, because although the white woman’s reaction to him was very racist, his own violent criminal record proves that he’s not a harmless angel. And whose fault is it that he chose to be a criminal? Movies like “All Day and a Night” certainly reinforce the negative stereotype that most black men are criminals, and that’s a stereotype that causes a lot of damaging racism.

“All Day and a Night” seems to want to ignore the reality that people who choose to openly live a “thug life” shouldn’t be too surprised when people stereotype them as criminals. If this racist incident depicted in the movie had happened to a black person without a violent criminal record (and racist incidents like this do happen to law-abiding black people in real life), then maybe more sympathy would be deserved.

And “All Day and a Night” certainly can’t blame Jahkor’s destructive lifestyle on white racism (even though the movie seems to want to put the blame there), because there is nothing but black-on-black violence in the film. But the movie wants people to feel sorry for Jahkor, when his choices and actions in life show that he’s his own worst enemy, and it’s not other people’s fault that he turned out to be such a loser.

There are other things that show that Jahkor is a selfish jerk, such as how he mistreats and degrades Shantaye about something she did in her past before she met him. Jahkor also has a disturbingly violent reaction after he meets his mother’s new boyfriend Ray Ray (played by John Que), who was nice enough to bail Jahkor out of jail without even knowing Jahkor. The movie hints that Jahkor might have inherited the mental illness his father has, but at the very least, Jahkor has serious anger management issues. His violent abusiveness is supposed to make him look “tough,” but it just makes him look hateful.

It comes as no surprise that Jahkor ends up quitting his job at the shoe store and becomes more involved with his friend TQ’s criminal activities. At first, Jahkor swears that he won’t get involved in drug dealing, but he changes his mind when he wants to impress the hotshot drug dealer in the ‘hood named Big Stunna (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who hires Jahkor to be his bodyguard/enforcer. Even though Jahkor is not muscular, he has a quick temper and has a reputation for being a vicious fighter. Big Stunna has a female sidekick named La-Trice (played by Rolanda D. Bell), who essentially does what all the African American women in this movie do: Let the men dominate and then react to whatever they want.

The rest of the movie shows why Jahkor committed the murders (he volunteered to do it) and there’s somewhat of a twist toward the end that reveals someone’s ulterior motive for the crime. There are some prison scenes where JD tries to give Jahkor advice on how to survive in the prison. And there’s also an almost laughable scene where Jahkor and JD are in the prison yard, and Jahkor tries to bond with JD by getting his father to some gardening in the yard with him. It’s completely unrealistic that this prison would allow a convicted murderer like Jahkor to have a sharp instrument like a gardening tool in the middle of a prison yard.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of violence in “A Day and a Night” and constant use of the “n” word and other cursing. All of the actors, except for Wright, are relatively unknown to mainstream audiences, so it’s easy to see why they jumped at the chance to work on a movie that was written and directed by someone who co-wrote the mega-successful “Black Panther.” Wright is an excellent actor, but this was clearly a “paycheck” movie for him, since there’s no depth at all to the JD character, who’s a typical abusive thug. Abdul-Mateen’s career is on the rise (he has the role of Black Mantis in DC Comics movies), but so far, he’s mostly known for playing villainous characters.

And the racist stereotyping isn’t just for the black people in the movie. The few white people who are in the film have small speaking roles, and they are portrayed in unflattering ways. There’s the racist store customer who’s afraid of dealing with Jahkor. There’s the young teacher who thinks she’s being a “white savior” by teaching in a predominantly African American school. There’s the young co-worker at the shoe store who talks like she’s a wannabe street gangster, but she really lives an an affluent white neighborhood. And there’s the overzealous cop who resents that Jahkor and TQ were driving in that white neighborhood. (Jahkor and TQ were in the neighborhood because it was Jahkor’s idea to follow that co-worker to her home. Very creepy.)

Aside from being annoyingly derivative, the biggest problem with “All Day and a Night” is that the movie doesn’t even have a protagonist that people will root for in a big way. The movie tries to make Jakhor sympathetic, when he’s in prison and cries on the phone about how he doesn’t want his son to see him in prison. Well, it’s a little too late for that, since Jahkor has a life sentence, and he volunteered to committed the murders when he knew that he was going to be a father.

There’s a flashback scene that takes place after Jahkor committed the murders, when he suddenly shows up at Shantaye’s home, looking anxious with the two guns he used in the crime. Jahkor won’t tell a suspicious and pregnant Shantaye what he did and why he has those guns, but he asks her to keep the guns. He also takes the cash that he was paid for the crime and hides it in Shantaye’s couch, presumably for Shantay to find later and to use as child-support money. But it’s blood money, so using it for child-support payments really doesn’t show any redemption on Jahkor’s part, and it definitely doesn’t justify the ruthless way that he gunned down two people in front of their child.

You have to wonder why these mediocre-to-awful African American gangster movies, which are usually financed by an all-white or predominantly white team of producers, keep getting made, when there are so many more interesting and original stories about African Americans that can be told. Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee, who is widely considered to be the most influential African American filmmaker of all time, is respected by other filmmakers because he doesn’t make the same type of movie over and over. The African American protagonists in his movies usually aren’t criminals, just like most African Americans in real life aren’t criminals.  Lee is an example of an African American filmmaker who understands that there is more to realistic African American stories than just depicting the main characters as criminals.

If you want to see a better and more accurate representation of modern African American culture in a Netflix drama that was released around the same time as “All Day and a Night,” check out the far superior and more original “Uncorked,” which is about a young, law-abiding African American man who aspires to be a master sommelier.

“All Day and a Night” would have been a more interesting film if it had made Lamark the protagonist, since it’s rare to have a movie that shows an African American war veteran as the lead character. (Spike Lee has done it with “Da 5 Bloods.”) “All Day and a Night” is writer/director Cole’s second movie as a director, so maybe his next movies that he writes and directs will show that he can come up with more original ideas and less degrading stories than this one.

Netflix premiered “All Day and a Night” on May 1, 2020.