‘All Day and a Night’ Review: Ashton Sanders Is Fantastic In Netflix’s Raw Crime Drama

Ashton Sanders is known for playing dynamic and tortured characters. The 24-year-old actor brings Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole’s All Day and a Night to life alongside Jeffrey Wright and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. The Netflix crime drama rests squarely on his shoulders–and he rises to the occasion and then some.

Ashton Sanders and Shakira Ja'nai Paye in Netflix's 'All Day and a Night'
Ashton Sanders and Shakira Ja’nai Paye in Netflix’s ‘All Day and a Night’ | Netflix

‘Black Panther’ co-writer Joe Robert Cole makes his feature directorial debut

With the first film he’s directed, Cole begins All Day and a Night with a big bang, setting the stage for a full rundown of how our main character, Jahkor aka “Jah” (Sanders), lands at this life-changing crossroads. The film takes the format of an interspersed, three-part timeline that chronicles Jah’s childhood, his state of mind right before the actions that landed him in jail, and his transition to incarceration.

Jah’s actions land him in jail alongside his father, J.D. (Wright), who we learn raised him with an iron first while he was on drugs and running the streets. Jah’s mother, Kelly Jenrette, attempts to add stability but has to be concerned with making sure their household stays afloat.

A young child with ambitions, he turns into a young man who wants to pursue a hip hop career. But it’s clear that from the jump, Jah was destined to end up going down the same path that his father did. Ridiculed as a child (the younger version of Jah is played wonderfully by All American‘s Jalyn Emil Hall), he gets the upper hand as he grows up, running the streets himself with his best friend, TQ (Isaiah John).

The two get looped in with a charismatic and menacing gang leader, Stunna (Abdul-Mateen), and somehow get involved in a street war that results in the tragic actions at the beginning of the film. Jah is left in prison, reflecting on how things ended up the way they did and how they can be better for his newborn son.

Ashton Sanders gives yet another riveting performance

Joining the devastating coming-of-age tale Charm City Kings, which will be released in theaters later this year, All Day and a Night marks the return of the beloved ’90s and ’00s crime dramas in the vein of films like Boyz n the Hood and Juice.

Playing another tortured young adult just over a year after Native Son debuted on HBO, Sanders once again proves that he’s one of the best young actors in Hollywood right now. Since he burst onto the scene with Moonlight, Sanders has proved that he’s more than worthy of the acclaim and roles afforded to his contemporaries like Timothee Chalamet, Lucas Hedges and others.

While no one would be upset that most of the film focuses on Sanders’ performance as Jah, it doesn’t flesh out the rest of the cast. Wright and Abdul-Mateen II are surprisingly underutilized in their roles and both aren’t given that much to work with. John, playing his equally-as-great role in FX’s Snowfall times 10, is underdeveloped, as is Shakira Ja’nai Paye as the doting girlfriend. Both are positioned as important pieces of Jah’s story but we never feel the connection. Considering where Jah ends up, more of John’s character, TQ, would have meant a great deal. Then there’s Regina Taylor, who appears in a couple of scenes as Jah’s grandmother. She seems to have had a pivotal role in his upbringing but only the surface is scratched as far as her importance in his life.

An imperfect but incredibly moving film

The film has a lot of moving parts, sometimes losing its focus. It opts to leave out Jah’s formative years and crucial moments that would have led him to commit such a crime, as well as more context into his redemption in prison. Though Cole’s story gets a bit muddled, his sleek and stylish direction makes him a filmmaker to watch.

And while the film’s present-day arc is seemingly supposed to serve as a redemptive one for its protagonist, it doesn’t exactly absolve Jah of what happened–which may actually be one movie’s most important elements. While we get his perspective and All Day and a Night strategically gives brings humanity to this flawed character, it forces viewers to look at a young Black man’s unraveling and how society is already in opposition to you from the jump. The system is broken. Jah says it himself: “People say they wanna know why…but they really don’t. They want an easy answer.”

All Day and a Night doesn’t offer easy answers either, but it sure does leave a lot for us to ruminate.

The film begins streaming on Netflix May 1.