By Leah Greenblatt and Leah Greenblatt
May 01, 2020 at 03:58 PM EDT
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Matt Kennedy/Netflix

Jakhor (Ashton Sanders) is the man his father made him: angry, defiant, determinedly not in his softer feelings. But that isn't the boy he was, and it may not be where he’s headed in All Day and a Night — a nervy, deeply felt drama that gets a little lost on its winding path to redemption but still finds a way home.

Joe Robert Cole, who co-penned the script for Black Panther with Ryan Coogler, writes and directs his discursive tale (on Netflix now) of a boy who, we learn in one of the movie’s first scenes, has already gotten to the point in his young life where shooting a couple dead in front of their 10-year-old daughter hardly moves the needle.

He’s quickly caught and put on trial, but refuses to tell anyone — the court, the victims’ grieving survivors, even his own mother — why he did it. That’s for the story to unfold, which is done with effective if sometimes effortful care over the next two hours.

Jah, as most of his friends call him, dreams of being a rapper, but in the meantime does what he can to survive on the streets of Oakland the way his long-incarcerated dad JD (Jeffrey Wright) taught him: by being harder and faster than the next man. Mostly that means rolling guys for jewelry and letting himself be drawn steadily closer to a local kingpin (Watchmen’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) looking for extra muscle in the game.

But when his girlfriend (Shakira Ja’nai Paye) tells him they’re having a baby, he decides to go straight, or at least try. Cole clearly has a lot to say about the bitter pill of black manhood in America — the birthrights and the broken systems and the choices that don’t feel like choices at all — some of which he delivers beautifully, as in a striking moment where a swarm of kids on bicycles becomes a wordless metaphor for innocence lost.

At other times his approach can feel clunky, tipping toward cliché. The movie’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t quite know what to do with a great actor like Wright, who never fully inhabits the role, or how exactly to bring his character from flashbacks into the present tense.

That leaves a lot of weight to bear on Sanders, who, as he did in Moonlight and last year’s Native Son, manages to do far more with his eyes than the scant dialogue he’s given allows. It's only really in a few scenes that Jah emerges from behind his own well-built walls; but when he does, the movie truly resonates: a requiem for all the things in a life that could have been, and the one that is instead. B

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