Funny how some entertainment already plays as “pre-quarantine”—we seem to have been locked down long enough that seeing fictive characters go about their normal business unfettered in the world has a slightly jarring, nostalgic quality. That applies to the new Netflix feature All Day and a Night, perhaps because it’s set in an Oakland of open streets, stores, and occasional crowds. (Probably like a lot of San Franciscans, the last time I was in the East Bay seems forever ago.)
It’s ironical and somewhat besides the point to get that sense of relative freedom here, because Joe Robert Cole’s film is really about being trapped. Its protagonist Jahkor (Ashton Sanders) feels constantly thwarted, first by playground bullies and a father (Jeffrey Wright) who often turns his own frustrations on him, later by one potential path after another that turns out to be a dead end. Everything contributes to a sense that he’s been disrespected his whole life, and that someone, someday, will have to answer for it.
When Jahkor gets a job in an athletic shoe store, upscale white customers insultingly assume he’s a shoplifter. When he finds love with Shantaye (Shakira Ja-Nai Paye), a local gangbanger gloatingly exposes him to something from her “wild” past that destroys that happiness. Finding a creative passion, he plays a rap track he’s cut for what passes as the community’s music kingpin, who dashes his hopes with callous ease. As Jahkor builds up rage over nothing ever working out in his favor, it seems inevitable he’ll get sucked into the same vortex of crime and retaliatory violence that sent his father to prison.
In fact, that’s exactly where Jahkor is at the latest point in Cole’s complicated puzzle of a screenplay, which begins with him killing two apparent strangers point-blank for reasons unknown for most of the ensuing two hours. Crisscrossing back and forth in time, the movie then finally reveals what led to that act, even as the central figure adjusts to his new life in Alameda County Jail, where the past still dogs him in terms of both dad’s presence and threatened new violence.
Cole, who was also a writer on Black Panther and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, doesn’t quite hit a home run here. His script is over-dependent on somewhat on-the-nose voiceover narration (“Sometimes the choices you have don’t really seem like choices at all”) to glue together its tricky structure. The filmmaking (especially Michael Abels’ score) is competent but stylistically pedestrian, one notable exception being a striking long tracking shot through an impromptu street party that ends with a double homicide. At its least, All Day feels like Moonlight (in which lead actor Sanders played the protagonist’s teenage incarnation) without the poetry, a brutal laundry list of bad cards dealt Jahkor by fate.
But it also has considerable cumulative power, as well as very vivid passages, like the first time our hero’s well-meaning, exasperated mother (Regina Taylor) visits him in prison, or the earlier occasion when his fury got misdirected towards a new boyfriend with whom she was trying to “start over.” Without ever preaching, this potent drama demolishes the notion that the poor and/or criminal are just “bad people” who somehow failed to “make something of themselves”: It shows how Jahkor, his parents, and nearly everyone else but the most blatantly predatory among them keep trying to lift themselves up, only to find the ladder stops short and the past pulls them back down.
Another fine drama that deals (in part) even more subtly with racial inequity is Annie Silverstein’s first feature Bull, which launched on various VOD/digital platforms last Friday. Indeed, there are quite a number of thematic overlaps with All Day here, even if the primary setting of a lower-middle-class subdivision west of Houston feels culturally very different. But there, 14-year-old Kris (Amber Havard) is in a leaky boat not so dissimilar to Jahkor’s: Her mother (Sara Albright) is in prison and her father is wholly absent or unknown, leaving her and younger sister in the grudging care of a grandmother (Keeli Wheeler) for whom she can do nothing right.
Granted kindness or even notice by no one, Kris is naturally angry, and she makes a classic, stupid adolescent mistake in trying to win the approval of some peers by breaking into the house of a neighbor she’s already sparred with. The resulting damage might easily send her to juvie, but instead taciturn Abe (Rob Morgan) consents to let her work off the offense. He’s no warm-and-fuzzy Good Samaritan, though, but a cranky loner who works on the rodeo circuit. Though he appears in terrific shape for his age, he’s taken so much punishment in the ring over the years that his career may soon be coming to an involuntary end.
It’s a predictable setup: Troubled youth finds unlikely mentor in crusty, bitter elder, who reluctantly lets her into the rarefied world (of bull riding) she shows determined interest in. But Silverstein and her co-writer Johnny McAllister don’t create a conventional feel-good narrative from that gist. While the novelty of a little white girl hanging around black rodeos (particularly once Abe’s injuries get him exiled from the better-paying mainstream circuit) gives Kris the benefit of the doubt from amused, tolerant strangers, Abe himself remains wary. Hard-drinking, addicted to pain killers, quick-tempered, he isn’t exactly the fatherly type. And the pain of her own home situation is acutely felt, with hopes of mom’s release all too likely to be dashed.
No wonder our heroine strays towards the worst influences who appear sympathetic, notably careless boys her age and one older oxy dealer (Steven Boyd) who may well have contributed to her mother’s fall. As with Jahkor, it will be a small miracle if this teen doesn’t end up pregnant, jobless, under-educated, and with a felony record like Ma—“bad choices” you can see her practically getting forced into, for lack of tangible better options.
With its strong cast of mostly unfamiliar faces—apart from the excellent Morgan (of Stranger Things and Mudbound) and Yolanda Ross, who plays Abe’s semi-ex-girlfriend—and deep-dyed regional authenticity, Bull is always convincing. The rodeo milieu fascinates, even if in its dual focus on aging-out veteran and wannabe, this is a considerably bleaker (but not hopeless) character study than Chloe Zhao’s similarly semi-documentary-feeling The Rider, possibly the best American movie of 2018.
Few are likely to embrace Bull with equal love. Like The Rider, it’s a terse film, but one that buries its warm heart deeper beneath the surface. Still, as with All Day and a Night, it offers a tough story whose truths are rewarding in themselves, and which do find some redemptive light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.