How Netflix's 'All Day and a Night' dodges stereotypes to tell painful truths

How Netflix's 'All Day and a Night' dodges stereotypes to tell painful truths

Joe Robert Cole’s drama “All Day and a Night” is a movie about cycles.

The Netflix feature film, currently streaming worldwide, offers a multigenerational portrait of toxic masculinity and the ways it is perpetuated and reinforced by systemic poverty and oppression.

Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) stars as Jahkor, a young man who tries and fails to avoid repeating the mistakes of his father, J.D. (Jeffrey Wright), whose environment has forced him to pass only survivalist lessons to his son.

“I think there’s this perception that underserved communities are full of men who have no interest in being fathers,” said Cole, who wrote and directed the film. “But I think too often the case is someone’s desire to be a parent doesn’t match up with the resources or life tools they have or need to care for a child or a family.”

Cole, a co-writer on “Black Panther” making his feature directorial debut, described the film as “a human story wrapped in a crime genre aesthetic.”

“The film is inspired by things I’ve seen throughout my life,” he said, “folks I’ve met and spent time with. The final touchpoint for me was hearing about the life of [a man] who’d murdered someone I was close to and finding myself feeling sorry for him based on the dehumanizing and systemic conditions that he grew up in and that our society casts the poorest among us to live. I set out to make a movie that would humanize someone like him in a way that I hadn’t seen.”

A powerful, unflinching drama from Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole, starring Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), Jeffrey Wright (Westworld), Isaiah John (Snowfall) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Watchmen).

For Wright, who recently starred in the HBO prison drama “OG,” which was shot entirely at a maximum security prison outside of Indianapolis, the opportunity to further the conversation around criminal justice reform compelled him to sign on.

“I was struck after speaking to Joe about the character of J.D., the father of a young man caught up in the cycle of criminality and incarceration,” he said. “That was a story that I heard [often] from the men that I worked with [on ‘OG’]. There were fathers and sons incarcerated together, multiple family members housed in the same correctional facility.

“Almost universally they described the ways in which their households were shaped by societal pressures and by their fathers, whether they were absent or present. And this was whether they were white or black, rural or urban poor. It was so evident to me in listening to them that their fathers had a massive influence on their outcome.”

Like Jahkor, J.D. is “limited in his capacity to realize a better life for himself,” Wright said. “He falls into traps that he in turn passes on to his son. He is shaped and misshaped by the pressures of living in an environment that is devoid of positive and constructive opportunities. This kind of intergenerational curse is a very real phenomenon.

“There are statistics about incarceration in New York that suggests that the majority of the incarcerated in this city come from a handful of neighborhoods,” Wright said. “There are people who are born into these conditions that do better, but it becomes the exception. The ways in which the absence of economic opportunity, quality education and healthcare inform fatherhood was interesting for me to explore. It’s not to take the responsibility entirely off of the individual, but the individual exists within a set of circumstances that nurture and shape behavior.”

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Director Joe Robert Cole, left, with Isaiah John and Ashton Sanders on the set of the Netflix drama “All Day and a Night.”

(Matt Kennedy / Netflix)

Early reception to the film’s trailer lamented its depiction of black pain and suffering instead of offering a more hopeful reality or envisioning a way out. “I’m so sick of the only black stories being told being our suffering,” read one comment with more than 2,000 likes. “Umm I’ll pass thanks,” read another. “I think I’ve seen enough movies with us being portrayed as thugs.”

“I understand the critique of wanting broader narratives,” Cole said, “[because] I was fortunate to be a part of writing ‘Black Panther.’ I feel like oftentimes people from underserved communities don’t get viewed or treated in a humane way. My desire was to try to put the audience in the shoes of a character that I feel I haven’t seen portrayed [with empathy].”

Wright agreed, saying: “The examinations of the difficulties that we face, done intelligently and with humanity and that explore previously unexplored truths, are extremely valuable. And I will never make choices about what types of stories I tell based on the comments on a YouTube trailer.

I will never make choices about what types of stories I tell based on the comments on a YouTube trailer.

Jeffrey Wright

“For some reason, people see a story about poor black folks and their attention is drawn onto those things as though those stories are sucking all of the oxygen out of the room,” he continued. “But there is a range of other stories being told. I understand that we’ve seen an abundance of those films in the past perhaps, but I think there is a broadening range of stories that are being told now.”

“The last films that were the most impactful in depicting a similar world,” Cole said, “were ‘Boyz N the Hood’ in 1991, ‘Menace II Society’ in 1993 and ‘Clockers’ in 1995. Those films are more than 25 years old, yet many of the conditions in those underserved communities remain the same today. I wanted to offer an unflinching window into Jahkor’s experience, the shock and emotion of violence, the suffocating feeling of hopelessness. The tiny cuts that never stop coming.

“This film is really getting to the human tragedy that I feel is an extension of the legacy of slavery,” he added. “I feel like you can draw a line back through mass incarceration, the war on drugs, ‘separate but equal,’ through Jim Crow and the Fugitive Slave Act and see how each of those periods in our country’s history have helped to shape what underserved communities of color are struggling under today.

“I think we oftentimes look at them as if they’re in a vacuum. All of it is a tragedy, not just when the redeemable character is affected, but also how the environment itself creates those viewed as unredeemable.”

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