You think you know Jeffrey Wright, character actor extraordinaire.
Yeah, he’s James Bond’s cynical, wry CIA intermediary Felix Leiter. He plays the guy who runs “Westworld” — a real technocrat.
Cops, scientists, government officials, family men, men in suits. Even when he’s a Caribbean money launderer (“The Laundromat”) there’s almost always a polish, an educated intelligence to go along with the sense of “cunning” implied when you cast him.
But if you follow him on twitter (@jfreewright) you get a hint of the other personas he can call on. He’s worth the follow just to read him reading the OG, streetwise riot act to racists, Hollywood haters and their ilk.
That Jeffrey Wright, on steroids, is who we get in “All Day and a Night,” an Oakland saga about generations passing their fury, grievances, criminal shortcuts, violence and the prison time that comes with that down, father to son to grandson.
The film, starring Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) as a rapper wannabe, hustler/mob-soldier in training, doesn’t show us much that we haven’t seen before. Maybe a little more back-story, a few extra pieces in the “motivation/how we got here” puzzle, all set to a sing-along gangsta rap (mostly) soundtrack. It’s depressingly over-familiar, or at least generic.
But Jeffrey Wright is scalding hot as the father to the young hood in a hoodie. He is TD, as in OG — a junkie/dealer who thinks beating his boy toughens him up for life as a black man in Oakland.
“It’s dog eat MAN out there,” he growls to his wife (Kelly Jenrette, who goes toe to toe, cheek to nose with him).
“By the time I was six, my Daddy’d been in jail nine times.”
A double-homicide and its consequences (trial and prison) frame this story. Jahkor (Sanders) shows “no remorse at all” in court after killing Malcolm (Stephen Barrington) and his wife in front of their little girl.
This is right after Malcolm thinks he might be able to talk his way out of this.
“We folks, right?”
The grim tale of how they got to that moment starts 13 years earlier, with Jahkor (Jalyn Hall) getting manhandled by an older teen — robbed — and then beaten by his father for letting it happen.
The cycle of revenge begins here. The lessons — that there’s safety in numbers, your “boys” have your back, and to never let any slight, insult or grievous wrong slide — are learned.
Jahkor grows up as a petty thief, disinterested in school, an only child his mother cannot control and his drug-addicted father is rarely around to raise. No, prison visits don’t count.
Jahkor and his “cuddy” (Bay Area “homie”) TQ (Isaiah John from TV’s “Snowfall”) stay thick as thieves, and harbor dreams of hip hop glory. “Jah” is transitioning from singing along to others’ raps with his girlfriend, Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye) in his Sentra, to cutting tracks. TQ is doing the recording.
Shantaye’s pregnancy has him deciding to straighten up altogether and find a legit job. He has a rap sheet — school suspensions for violence were just the start. But working in a mall athletic shoe store just exposes him to racial profiling by the white customers.
Targeting a mouthy suburban white teenage girl who talks a “gangsta” game, following her home to suburbia rob her and her beau with TQ, just gets them pulled over — “profiling” that uh, works? It prevented a robbery, even if there’s no arguing that her kind of “white people annoy the s— out of me.”
Even if the white cop crosses a line, noting the kid’s father, asking “Is it genetic?”
Writer-director Joe Robert Cole (one of the screenwriters of “Black Panther”) never lets the picture drift into “Hustle & Flow” — all about the hip hop. But the persistence of it on the soundtrack, Jah’s rhymes and the rhymes he, his friends and his girl sing along to, point to an association.
Rappers are passing along destructive rules of behavior from one generation to the next.
Prison is where ALL the generations connect, “whole neighborhoods” of “family” imprisoned together. And that’s where Jah spends the most time with his now-grizzled, longtime convict dad.
Cole gives us undeveloped hints of “another path” Jah might have followed, a relative who goes into the the military, of a grandmother who related more to his throw-up-her-hands teacher than his hotheaded mother (who storms out of a parent-teacher conference).
But what he focuses on is the crime and the gang rift that led to it.
If you’re not accustomed to the slang and patois used here, don’t be proud. Turn on the closed-captioning. That’s where Cole’s script shines, in the dialogue — an argument dismissed with “MISS me that s—!” You take a gang job or take a stance in the prison yard, than means, like a basketball center, you stand your ground — “post up.”
A gang leader, Big Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has a brother he’s been leaning on.
“He upstate (imprisoned). I’m shorthanded. Marinate on that.”
Stunna is a foodie. I s— you not.
There’s a lot going on here, some of it good, some of clutter, too much of it voice-over narration, turning that lazy screenwriting device into annoying background noise.
Which is to say, “All Day and a Night” plays too long at two hours, but this being Netflix, we should be grateful they didn’t mini-series it.
Unless that meant more Jeffrey Wright.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language, drug use and some sexual content/nudity
Cast: Ashton Sanders, Jeffrey Wright, Isaiah John, Shakira Ja’nai Paye and Kelly Jenrette
Credits: Written and directed by Joe Robert Cole. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:21