There’s a scene in “All Day and a Night” that cuts you to the quick. Jahkor Lincoln (Ashton Sanders), a freelance thug and aspiring rapper in Oakland, CA., who wears a permanent hot glare of suspicion, is seated in the living room of a gang leader named Big Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Jahkor is trying to play up to the local-hood-turned-celebrity-rap mogul, Thug’ish Trex (James Earl), who in his long gold chain and Legend track suit carries himself like a roly-poly king. He holds the power of someone who can hook a brother up, so when he says “put that shit on,” it’s a rare opportunity.
They cue up one of Jahkor’s home-made recordings, and as it starts to play, Jahkor, though hardly a specialist in displaying emotion, closes his eyes and bobs his head up and down, sinking into the groove. He’s not a bad rapper, and not a great one either; he’s like a hundred other anonymous hip-hop proles trying to tug their way out of the streets. But just as the song is kicking in, Trex looks up from the blunt he’s rolling and says, “Got another track?” It’s like a blade stuck into the heart of Jahkor’s dream.
Jahkor wants to use rap to box his way out, yet “All Day and a Night” couldn’t be further in tone from a movie like “Hustle & Flow” (as great as that movie was). There’s no vestige of romanticism here, no movie-ish salvation. “All Day and a Night” is made with empathy and skill, but it’s as clear-eyed and remorseless as a news report.
The film’s implicit premise is that when raw young inner-city criminals become onscreen characters, even when they’re treated sympathetically they’re almost always mythologized. And that’s a way of tamping down on their humanity. Joe Robert Cole, the writer-director of “All Day and a Night,” is the co-screenwriter of “Black Panther” (he also wrote two episodes of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”), and with this movie he becomes a filmmaker to watch. His staging is so no-frills that at first you may think it’s too neutral (though there’s one hypnotic three-minute-long shot, which wanders through a party and then spills onto the street and keeps wandering, that’s like a sociological movie of its own). Yet there’s a dramatic potency to this kind of scruffy, lived-in authenticity. Cole lays bare the operations of a world that’s been milked, too often, for gangsta kicks.
“All Day and a Night” opens with Jahkor executing a drug dealer, then being sent to prison. We see how he negotiates existence behind bars, but the film then jumps back into his life. It shows us the journey of haphazard tragedy and violence that got him here, and Ashton Sanders brings us close to him.
When I saw “Moonlight,” I was transfixed by Sanders’ performance as the teenage Chiron, who holds everything in — his love and his hate — until it explodes out of him like shrapnel. To me, it was the one transcendent performance in the movie, and I was shocked, as “Moonlight” gathered up its accolades, to see that there wasn’t more of a spotlight shined on Sanders. Here, he’s battle-scarred and alert, with a haunted scowl that doesn’t always cover up his torn heart. Sanders is the kind of poetic actor who finds a lyricism in Jahkor’s stunted nihilism.
Jeffrey Wright plays Jahkor’s father, JD, who we see in flashback as a freebase-head in a do-rag who treats his wife (Regina Taylor) and son like hostile criminals. Yet Wright is too great an actor to make this anything less than a rounded portrayal. JD’s viciousness is scary (Wright, as in the books of Iceberg Slim, shows you that the character’s street rage is actually a manipulative, threatening performance that he dials up and down). He’s setting up Jahkor to perpetuate the legacy of violence, yet there are glimpses of the love he has for his son. The two men meet up again in prison, at which point Wright makes JD a declawed lion.
The movie builds, dramatically and psychologically, to that first fateful execution, gliding from one formative incident to the next, as Jahkor speaks to us in voice-over (“Everybody on the outside looks in pretendin’ they would do better”). There’s the mugging he commits with his friend TQ (Isaiah John), who beats the victim so brutally that Jahkor’s eyes widen in shock. There’s the flashback to the young Jahkor (Jalyn Emil Hall) seeing his father kill someone who owes him money. There’s the incident in the athletic-shoe store where Jahkor lands a job, when a white woman who enters doesn’t believe he works there. There’s his romance with Shantaye (Shakira Ja-Nai Paye), who becomes pregnant, and the day that starts to crash when Trex shows him an old porn video he shot of her (the film explains why she did it, making Jahkor’s blowup look cruel). There’s the brilliant scene in which he explodes at his mother’s new boyfriend for saying one slightly rude thing. It all adds up to a drip-drip-drip of gutted pride and vanishing options, with the serpent of vengeance rearing its head at every turn.
“All Day and a Night,” which premieres May 1 on Netflix, may sound like a hard movie to sell, since it never falsifies gangsta “thrills.” Yet there’s an excitement to seeing this landscape of yearning hunger and cyclic rage treated with neorealist humanity. If Joe Robert Cole holds onto that gift, he has the chance to be the kind of filmmaker who can connect us all.