Halfway through A.V. Rockwell’s stunning feature-length directorial debut, A Thousand and One, Teyana Taylor’s dauntless Inez vocalizes her doubt for the first time. “I keep feeling like something’s going to happen,” she says. It seems impossible that she hadn’t thought this before, given that she’s spent her life uncertain of what might come next. Inez grew up in foster care and was fending for herself in Harlem by the time she was a teenager; volatility is second nature. But the world has begun to spin too fast for her to keep up with, and the inertia of everything she holds dear is on the line.
The question of what can and cannot be preserved in the face of unstoppable change weaves throughout time in A Thousand and One’s rousing epic. Spanning more than a decade, the film tracks Inez and her son, Terry (played at different ages by Aaron Kinsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, and Josiah Cross), after Inez illegally removes Terry from foster care when she returns home from Rikers Island. Rockwell adroitly textures the script with weighty themes. Among them: the socioeconomic distress put on Black New Yorkers at the turn of the millennium, colorism, misogynoir, and the complex web of government care systems.
Despite being a self-described “heartbreak letter” to New York City, A Thousand and One brims with sunny vitality, thanks to its profoundly candid love story between mother and son. As Inez, Taylor is nothing short of sensational. Her performance infuses the movie with a fully realized maternal passion that singes the silver screen and will leave viewers awestruck. Taylor and Rockwell work in tandem to craft a local story, about the price of stillness in a city that changed almost overnight. As harrowing as it is earnest, the film’s big, beating heart is destined to stay firmly on the viewers’ sleeves.
A Thousand and One opens on the streets of Harlem in 1994, basking in the daylight while the city around it awakens. Those who are unfamiliar with New York will take note of the neighborhood’s close-knit community, teeming with life. Other viewers may see their own home, brought back from a bygone era. Inez is returning to Harlem from prison without work—the salon she did hair at won’t take her back after the trouble she’s caused—but it doesn’t matter. The vibrant summer promises a new start for her, and she’s determined to bring her six-year-old Terry along in whatever comes next.
Terry takes a moment to warm up to his mother, but Inez works to prove herself to him. She makes concerted efforts to stay in touch with her son and show him that she’s on the up and up. After Terry lands himself in the hospital trying to evade his foster family, Inez has to make the most difficult choice of her life. She can take Terry away from the system and risk being caught for a kidnapping felony, losing access to him forever. Or she can let him stay in government care and, hopefully, keep him from becoming the product of whatever he endures from afar.
But when Inez looks at Terry, she can only see a version of herself, growing up in the same way. She doesn’t just want to make his life better, she has to. Together, they flee the hospital and end up in Brooklyn, dodging radio reports of a missing child while they stay with Inez’s friend. But none of their lodging is permanent, given Inez’s precarious relationship to authority.
Taylor navigates the film’s first act with a remarkable grip on both sides of her character. At once, she holds a fiercely protective, stony demeanor and the complete vulnerability of someone struggling against their youth. She tries to find how self-love and love for another can equate, when it’s the latter that’s all-consuming.
Inez’s unstable youth skewed her self-perception, and taking care of Terry allows her to avoid staring in the mirror. But life catches up with her, as it does with all of us. Keeping Terry by her side forces her to contend with the fact that she may never get what life owes her. Instead, she has to stop running and build something for herself, or all of her affection for Terry will be for naught.
Living life on the world’s terms has its disadvantages, too. Though Terry is happy to be with her, Inez can sense he craves something more. Once she finds stability, she tries to bring Terry’s would-be father, Lucky (William Catlett), into the picture, to results that alter the course of both of their lives. Lucky and Terry have a deep love for one another, but Lucky dips in and out. By the time Terry is 13, he’s picked up only enough from Inez and Lucky to mimic their romance and behavior in his own life.
As time moves forward, we witness the backdrop of New York change dramatically under the tenure of Rudy Giuliani’s mayorship, which introduced brutal policing policies like stop-and-frisk. Giuliani was often credited by popular media for “cleaning up the city,” mere code for displacing people of color and opening the door for rampant gentrification. Rockwell’s film avoids summarizing this phenomenon in the way that we often see it in popular media—the tired joke of the oat milk-serving coffee shop is, blessedly, nowhere to be found. Instead, A Thousand and One is the rare film to depict the subtle beginnings of gentrification all the way through to its cruel end.
Adetola and Courtney are both shining beacons in A Thousand and One, playing Terry at 6 and 13, respectively. Both young actors lend a realized tenderness to their relationship with Inez that makes each part of Terry feel precise and faithful to the character. But it’s Josiah Cross who really stuns in the film’s final act. As Terry at 17, Cross effortlessly wears the wisdom imparted onto his character by his mother and father in each movement, glance, and word. Cross and Taylor’s screen chemistry doesn’t make A Thousand and One feel like a movie, so much as a detailed portrait of a real family.
So much of that is thanks to Taylor, who was already one of the most dynamic performers working today. Anyone unfamiliar with her will be incapable of walking away from A Thousand and One feeling like they’ve seen something less than a landmark performance. In one simple line, echoed by millions of mothers everywhere (”I love you a whole lot, but I’m really starting to not like you”), there are endless essays to be written. One line delivery says so much about motherhood, particularly the complex dynamics between Black mothers and their sons, which are so carefully examined by Rockwell and understood by Taylor.
Although its thematic elements are plainly visible, A Thousand and One never becomes too literal. The film allows plenty of space for inference. Neither the screenplay nor direction makes any attempt at clarity for the obtusely short-sighted, which results in a stunning final act that holds audiences in its grip until the credits roll. These scenes reframe the entire narrative, while affirming a love that succeeds against all odds, twisting through systems of insidious oppression and displacement. Against a swelling, sublime reprise of Gary Gunn’s opening piece of score, we witness how affection never wavers, even when everything that surrounds it is different than it once was.
But there is another line of dialogue planted right near the film’s end that I can’t stop thinking about and won’t for months to come. I wish I could spoil it for you here, to talk about how it tightens the film’s soaring scope. But to do so would be to strip you of the divine pleasure of discovering it yourself. Luckily, the ride to that place of ascension is just as divine. A Thousand and One is filled with prudence throughout, wrapping it up in its sweet devotion. Like a mother’s kiss on her son’s forehead, this wisdom sets everything right, even if only for a moment.
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