All Day and a Night
Many often say that nothing under the sun is really new, and that everybody is, in some way, paying homage to something or somebody. But All Day and a Night is uniquely disadvantaged in this department, as it’s the latest in a series of films about the young, Black male experience in Oakland, California to come out this decade (with others being Blindspotting, Fruitvale Station, and Sorry to Bother You). Of course, a setting and a point of view can contain multitudes, but similarities also inevitably invite comparisons, and in All Day and a Night‘s case, they’re not always flattering.
The film stars Ashton Sanders as Jahkor Lincoln, a.k.a. Jah, a quiet and observant young man who never stood a chance. Raised first by his physically abusive, emotionally distant dad, J.D. (Jeffery Wright), and then by a series of makeshift father figures, Jah learns early on that the only way to survive in East Oakland is to internalize J.D.’s lessons of toxic masculinity. Under the influence of his equally troubled childhood friend, TQ (Isiah John), Jah graduates from petty stickups to an unofficial bodyguard position with local drug kingpin Big Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). What Jah really wants to do is make music, and he does lay down a track or two in his spare time. But once his girlfriend, Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye), becomes pregnant, his already narrow options shrink even further, leading to the desperate, misjudged double murder that opens the film.
Jah’s story, throughout, is told with a wraparound structure that is pretty similar to the one in Fruitvale Station, this time done through the perspective of a perpetrator of a violent crime rather than a victim. Throughout the film, writer-director Joe Robert Cole grasps at themes in an attempt to diagnose Jah’s — and his neighborhood’s — issues, and while some of the small moments are there, the film never hangs on to any of them long enough to make much of an impression. The same can be said for the film’s nonlinear structure, which is scattered enough that it can only create impact through scene-to-scene juxtaposition, never cumulatively. Toward the end of the film, All Day and a Night does find a thesis when Jah and J.D. are reunited in prison, but by then it’s just too late.
While systemic racism, lack of economic opportunity, and the school-to-prison pipeline are obviously serious problems that need to be addressed, we are in an era where Black filmmakers are continually producing fresh, innovative work that redefines the rules and expands the scope of Black storytelling on screen. So, when you have a gritty drama about life on the streets that’s full of gangster posturing and flashing Glocks, it just doesn’t spark in the same way, especially when it’s as unfocused as All Day and a Night. And it’s pretty odd because Cole has a key part in one of the biggest game-changers in Black cinema this decade: he co-wrote Black Panther. But where that film was expansive and forward-thinking, this one feels like a throwback — and not in a good way. Telling a deeply familiar story, All Day and a Night needed to find its own lane, but it never really does. Often finding itself scattered, unfocused and with unflattering familiarities.
All Day and a Night is available to stream on Netflix
The Banker is a film that plucks an obscure figure out of history with shaky results. Set largely before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it tells the story of an African-American entrepreneur, Bernard S. Garrett (Anthony Mackie), as he teams up with Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) and takes on racism in real estate and banking. It’s an appealing David vs Goliath setup that uses laughs, white racism and black righteousness to soft-sell a tale of inequality, heroic capitalism and big mathematics. Largely based on audiotapes recorded by Garrett in 1995, the film tracks his rise in the Los Angeles real estate scene, focusing on his relationships with Morris, but also Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), a working-class acquaintance whom the pair enlist to front their various business dealings, thus allowing them to circumvent racist banking and loan policies. But over the course of the film’s two-hour runtime, we don’t learn much more about Garrett than we did in its opening minutes. Whereas most biopics tend to psychoanalyze and over-explain their subject’s actions, The Banker maintains a peculiar detachment from Garrett, whom Mackie embodies with a perpetual scowl, conveying steely determination but not much more. Likewise, Jackson doesn’t get to do much more than play the wisecracking foil.
But when Garrett comes up with an audacious plan to buy the historical Bankers Building in downtown Los Angeles, the film’s stock characterizations do prove reasonably entertaining. But if Steiner is to successfully negotiate a deal with the city’s business moguls, he needs to think and act like a born-into-wealth banker, which in this case requires a month of training from both of the principal characters. And while the metamorphosis of that drags on, it also captures the performative aspect of race. What makes these interactions stick with you aren’t their laughs, but the vision of African-Americans’ patiently dispensing life lessons to a white innocent. They aren’t simply teaching Matt how to play, dress, and eat. They are also, movingly, explaining how to navigate white power, something that they have had to do all their lives.
Yet it’s everything before and after that which seems to be actively striving to be inoffensive, which undermines the genuine offenses the men were fighting against, and which made their story worth telling in the first place. The director, George Nolfi, who wrote the script with a whopping four other writers, tries to fill the larger sociopolitical picture while keeping the story grounded in the personal. And it’s rough going, especially with Nolfi tries to make the case that Bernard is a revolutionary figure when he mostly comes across as a self-interested entrepreneur with politics that sound like movie lines. Still, Nolfi keeps the swinging in that direction, stodgily dramatizing Bernard’s efforts as his wife Eunice (Nia Long) smiles and delivers wifely pep talks. It’s hard not root for them even if they’re obvious and underdeveloped, burdened with dialogue that too often sounds schematic rather than embodied. It’s all very competent, but competence isn’t very powerful. In a film like The Banker, where serious matters are treated like formulaic plot points and dramatic concessions begin to focus more on Steiner and are seemingly made to amplify the white experience in a story about racism in the ’60s, competence is a half-measure. In the end, the story is told, and told in such a way that we get the gist of it. And that’s really it. Continually relying on the formulaic biopic beats with plenty of training montages and speechifying, The Banker may have an intriguing story of Black entrepreneurship, but sadly and frustratingly, it still often focuses on the false white guy sidekick front.
The Banker is available to stream on Apple TV+
Based on where the film ends up, Swallow begins rather innocently. It’s early on when newly pregnant Hunter (Haley Bennett) chomps on glassy cubes of ice at a celebratory dinner with her husband, Richie (Austin Stowell), and his wealthy parents (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche), but from there she develops a desire to consume inedible objects that quickly escalates. In her pearls, blonde bob and ’50s-esque full skirts, Hunter looks like the picture-perfect housewife. She is, however, desperate for control of her own body and to feel something in a house she shares with a husband who doesn’t listen to her. Soon, she graduates to gulping down a marble, then a pushpin, followed by even larger, sharper things that disappear past her lips.
It’s an actual eating disorder called Pica — a compulsive condition marked by an overwhelming desire to eat non-food items. But the film morphs much further than that. In its style and themes, Swallow evokes Todd Haynes’ Safe and Far From Heaven and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, with its saturated colors, Midcentury furniture and a story of a woman who will try anything to escape her life. As Hunter, Bennett is an absolute wonder, alternately sweet, delicate, doting, and bringing surprising fragility in her portrayal of this complex character, who feels like a real person. Making his feature debut, writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis has made a feminist film of strong queasiness. It’s one of those where you’ll be unable to believe what you’re seeing yet unable to fully look away. And while Hunter’s backstory is a little too tidily articulated, Swallow still remains psychologically rich and always genuine, even in its stunning stylized approach to the interior life of its protagonist. Uncompromising and elegantly restrained, Swallow brings a bracing look at the oppressiveness of gender roles through a radical feminist metaphor.