Director Joe Robert Cole's film stars Ashton Sanders, Jeffrey Wright, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

By Clark Collis
April 21, 2020 at 12:18 PM EDT
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In the Netflix crime drama All Day and a Night, Ashton Sanders plays the soft-spoken Jahkor Abraham Lincoln who struggles to keep his dream of rapping alive amidst a gang war in Oakland. Landing in prison beside his father, J.D. (Jeffrey Wright), whom he never wanted to be like, Jahkor embarks on an unlikely journey of self-discovery, exploring the events that unite them, in hopes of helping his newborn son break a cycle that feels unavoidable. The film costars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II from Watchmen and is written and directed by Joe Robert Cole. "I think storytelling starts with empathy," says Cole. "Looking at the characters and thinking about what they want and what their needs are as human beings and not as archetypes or stereotypes. I wanted to really embrace the crime movie while staying true to that humanity."

Cole's previous credits include cowriting the Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther with director Ryan Coogler. The latter became friendly with Cole during their collaboration and volunteered to interview him over the phone about All Day and a Night for EW. Read the pair's discussion below.

Matt Kennedy/Netflix

RYAN COOGLER: So, how are you doing first of all? You good?

JOE ROBERT COLE: I’m hanging in, I’m hanging in. I’m doing well, hunkered down in this time. You know, we lost a giant hair stylist, Charles Gregory Ross (who worked on All Day and a Night) to COVID-19 a couple of weeks ago

I’m so sorry to hear that.

Yeah, I was blessed to have the opportunity to work with him. So, for me, I'm hunkered down. And yourself?

Yeah, same thing, here in the Bay Area, not far from where you shot the film. You met some of my family when you were shooting. You probably met everybody when we screened Panther but you saw them again, because a lot of the stuff that you filmed was where my family lives.

Yeah!

Everybody’s just shut in their place. We’ve got a lot of elders with pre-existing conditions and we’re just trying to do our best to keep everybody safe and keep everybody compliant and educated on all these developments. This is an intense time. I couldn’t help but think about it while watching the film, just seeing those folks that are incarcerated, that’s kind of a hot bed right now for the virus — just seeing the interactions, the handshakes, and people hugging and holding each other close. I think it’s actually being released at a time that’s profound. How do you feel bringing a movie like this out at this time?

Yeah, it’s interesting, man. You think of prison and you think of how people are being shuttled in and out of the system, in and out of these communities, and there’s no social distancing in prison. And I think the circumstances are exacerbated in underserved communities whenever there’s stresses in the world. For me, I’m excited for people to see the film for a lot of reasons and I think the timing is appropriate. It allows us to talk about health care and other issues that plague underserved communities. So, yeah I’m excited about it.

You and I, we met through working on Black Panther, but I remember one of the first things that we talked about was the time that you spent in the Bay Area. How did you wind up spending time in the Bay and what that as like for you?

Yeah, I lived all around the Bay while I was in college and I spent a lot of time between classes and semesters with people from there. During that time, I really fell in love with the heart, the honesty of the entire Bay Area, that sense of community, family. And we shot across the street from people you know. Just that idea of family and how amazing that is, the history of the city. Also while I was there I saw the struggle. It was a formative time for me and shaped who I am in a lot of ways. It was an easy decision to want to set the film there.

It’s interesting, man, watching the film again — it’s the second time of seeing it — the school scene, I spent a lot of time in my childhood playing on that court, when I was the same age as our character, and had all types of experiences over there. So it was very interesting and very authentic in terms of the situation the kids find themselves in. The film has a lot of layers to it. It deals with masculinity, black male masculinity, and fatherhood, and what that means when you are living under conditions that are attacking you in society. But also systemic issues and the cyclical nature of those issues. We see what’s going on in his home life but also see him in the school and in the job force and even in the correction system and seeing how these systems don’t really work for him.  Do you want to talk about that? Because I thought that was a really strong presence in the film.

The systemic issues that are present outside of prison and inside of prison are a little bit of what I’m trying to get at. I speak to some of it in the voiceover that we put together for the film. The idea of Jah being someone who’s a young man grappling with being in prison for life surrounded by too many familiar faces, right, including his own father, and he’s struggling to see the difference between the systemic walls that are put up around him in his community outside of prison and the walls that he's facing inside prison. So, this idea of feeling like you’re imprisoned and overcoming that in both capacities is something that the movie is trying to do. Those specific issues have been around for generations. He's struggling inside and he’s struggling outside, of the the lack of opportunities, of resources, of education, [healthcare]. The whole gambit.

Matt Kennedy/Netflix

I’m sure you’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of things things in the industry. Why this film?

That's a good question. The world of this movie is one I've navigated at different times in my life as a fly on the wall. We’ve talked about this, right? I view that as a gift because of the perspective those experiences gave me. But I would say that the final touchpoint that inspired me to make the movie was hearing about the life of someone who had murdered someone who was close to me and finding myself feeling sorry for that person based on the dehumanizing conditions our society has cast the poorest among us to live. I set out to make a movie in that world that would be from the point of view of someone who rarely has a story told from their perspective. I wanted to humanize a person we often struggle to see the humanity in as a society by peeling by the layers of his life.

The film is violent and unflinching at times but there’s also a level of hope there as well. How important was that to you?

I’m glad you say that. The film is tough by design, it asks a lot of the audience. But I think Jah’s journey is about finding hope in the one place he can control ,which is inside himself. On a certain level the film is about self-reliance in the face of insurmountable odds and I think a lot of people can relate to that. What I didn’t want to do, though, was create false hope. I wanted to make the movie as grounded and as realistic as I could and have that hope feel real to the world that it exists in.

I wanted  to really embrace the crime movie genre while staying true to that humanity. You need really strong actors to do that. And so, working with my casting director Kim Coleman, our focus was to find actors who could embody the nuances the vulnerability that exists in humanity, the sense of intelligence that exists, and the frustration, and how someone might respond to being under the pressures of this sort of environment.

Matt Kennedy/Netflix

We saw some folks in some quite different roles. I'm thinking about Jeffrey and Yahya particularly. Yahya and I actually knew each other as kids.

That’s crazy. It's interesting, Jeffrey was the first one to sign on and I was looking for the right kind of alchemy, the right balance of danger and vulnerability and smarts to capture the nuance of a man in J.D.'s position.

You’re playing with time in the film. It has a mystery element where you find out the motives over the course of the film. How did you come to the idea of telling the story that way and what other genre films inspired you when you were working?

The reason I approached it that way is, as an African-American male, often times you’re perceived to be a certain way just by somebody seeing you, right? The idea of peeling back layers and showing the whole of what you are — I felt that it would be interesting to take that journey backwards in a way. Memento, interestingly, was a movie that I thought a lot about while I was writing the script, because of the way it reveals a crime story going backwards in time. And then there’s Terence Malick’s Badlands, Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, those were big for me in the way they treat young criminals with humanity. A Prophet influenced me, I know you’re a big fan of that movie. There’s an Italian crime movie that I love called Suburra that was a big influence in terms of style. Obviously, Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, Clockers. Patty Jenkins’s Monster was also a film that I looked at. I tried to look at a lot of things.

Well, I think we’ve probably overstayed our welcome here, but I’ve got to say I’m happy for you, man. So excited for folks to see this movie. And I can’t wait to see you in person after the dust settles on this awful situation. I’m so sorry to hear about your collaborator. Jesus, man. You say he passed away two weeks ago?

Yeah, a couple of weeks ago. He was a legendary hair stylist. He’d been working for decades. It was a big loss, man. But I appreciate that and I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me. I look forward to seeing you as well and I’m excited for people to get the chance to check out this film.

All Day and a Night arrives on Netflix May 1. Exclusively watch the film's trailer above.

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