A Thousand and One Review
Focus Features/Courtesy Of Sundance Institute
A Thousand and One, the powerful debut feature from A.V. Rockwell, follows the struggles of a young woman of color as she attempts to rebuild her life after a stint in prison. Teyana Taylor delivers a remarkable performance as Inez De La Paz, a hair stylist who is introduced to us in 1993 while serving time at Rikers.
Living in a Brooklyn homeless shelter a year later, Inez is determined to stay out of trouble and get work, despite the challenges she faces.
The film explores the complex and loving bond between Inez and her son Terry (played by Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross as he grows up), both of whom were spat out of the foster care system.
At first reluctant to talk to his mother after she abandoned him on the street, Terry eventually warms up to her when she visits him in the hospital after an accident in his foster home.
Inez gives him her beeper number and promises to find him when she is moved to a new shelter. When news of Terry’s abduction in Brooklyn reaches Inez, she impulsively whisks him away to Harlem.
Over the course of 15 years, Rockwell chronicles their lives together as they navigate the challenges of living in a rapidly gentrifying New York City. Inez finds work and an affordable apartment, and Terry attends school with a fake ID. However, as he approaches college age, the threat of their shared secret being exposed and tearing them apart looms large.
As Terry grows into a teenager, his relationship with Inez becomes strained, particularly as she resumes a tumultuous romance with Lucky (played by Will Catlett) after his release from prison. Lucky provides a father figure for Terry, but their fights often cause him to disappear for weeks at a time, leading Terry to blame Inez unfairly.
Through gritty textures, sizzling colors, and vibrant street life, particularly in Harlem, the film brings to life the challenges faced by Inez and Terry. A Thousand and One is a tender and painful portrait of a mother and son’s bond, a rich evocation of New York City, and a poignant exploration of the effects of discriminatory policing and the foster care system on communities of color.
The three actors portraying Terry effectively convey the pain of a child who has become accustomed to disappointment and constantly fears being abandoned again. Inez is acutely aware of her son’s tension and both she and Lucky are damaged individuals, adding a vein of melancholy to the moments of harmony in their fragile family unit.
Taylor is particularly impressive in portraying the toll of holding the family together, giving more than she receives from Lucky and Terry, which slowly erodes her. One scene, in which she simultaneously laughs and sobs while eating instant noodles and watching trivial reality TV, is heart-wrenching.
While the film may feel slightly drawn-out at times, the drama is fully realized and the relationships are depicted with love and empathy for the characters’ weaknesses and aspirations, amplified by Gary Gunn’s mellow score.
What sets the film apart from just a simple domestic story is its astute portrayal of the changes in New York City during Giuliani’s and Bloomberg’s time as mayor.
The crackdown on street crime leads to racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately affect people of color, causing Terry to be slammed against a wall for simply walking home from school.
The rampant development favors property owners while marginalizing longtime residents of entire neighborhoods, shown with ruthless indifference as new landlords take over maintenance responsibilities and make homes uninhabitable, adding to Inez’s burden as she grapples with a tragic loss and Terry’s uncertain future.
The film benefits greatly from the authenticity of its locations, the director’s sensitivity to the casualties of societal change, and DP Eric K. Yue’s keen eye for the city’s evolution and its impact on marginalized communities.
Despite the characters’ many heated arguments, it’s a subdued drama that offers a poignant character study of a complex woman motivated solely by her desire to create a better life for herself and her loved ones. The film concludes with a revelatory twist that casts Inez’s sacrifices in a new light.