This film was originally reviewed for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
A benefit of growing older is getting a fuller view of the person your parents are as people outside of that role. Some moments are merely unexplainable – passed down from previous generations, either in good or bad ways. In other moments, you realize they had to be illustrations in a societal construct that gave them minimal tools to paint their canvas.
Director A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One is where the ever-changing landscape of New York and the black family within are in constant conversation with each other – whether directly or indirectly. It’s a world that’s unforgiving to missteps and false starts – that, throughout the decades of the story being told, is fighting with the extraction of culture and vibrancy that made Harlem what we perceive it to be.
We briefly see Inez (Teyana Taylor) in Rikers Island in 1993 and released shortly after. The Harlem she returns to is plush with the brilliance of hip-hop culture, where people are playing music, sitting out on porches, and freely interacting with each other. She immediately tries to pick up the pieces of her life – specifically involving her then 6-year-old son Terry (Josiah Cross), who sustained an injury trying to escape his foster parents. He’s quiet and reserved, and even though she doesn’t have a consistent play to stay, Inez asks Terry if he wants to stay with her. From that point on, Inez’s life is almost dedicated so that Terry can reap the benefits she never got to see herself.
Anytime there’s a reference to her family, Inez states they are gone. She has a passion for doing hair, but has to mute that passion for taking a job to afford a place to stay for her and Terry. This is added to the inherent danger that Terry has been illegally taken from his foster family – they must constantly live under duress. At one point, the younger Terry asks Inez, “how come nobody is looking for me?” – speaking to the very uneven measure of social services in New York City. However, even with a new identity bestowed upon him with documents changing his name to Daryl, Inez is adamant about achieving a fresh start. In her own words, “there’s more to life than fucked-up beginnings.”
Throughout A Thousand and One, voiceovers from then-Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg speak about various ways they proposed to improve the city. This resulted in “stop and frisk,” which disproportionately targeted people of color. Coupled with the stunning cinematography of Eric K. Yue, the adjacent story visually tells one of the laundromats and bodegas closing down. Many of the long-time inhabitants of the neighborhood get sacrificed to the pressures of identification. Inez and Terry’s apartment get taken over by a wealthy landlord who elects to displace them for “necessary repairs.”
This brings us back to Inez's proclamation at the film's beginning, where she states she “would go to war for Terry against anybody.” Terry excels in school, where he’s able to go somewhere better. Inez constantly pushes him to take this chance, but there’s trepidation on his part. Is he entirely prepared to leave his mother behind? It’s a family trying to form together under duress, and the slight bond that ties Inez and Terry together slowly loses its strength. When Inez’s boyfriend Lucky (Will Catlett) comes home from prison, he makes a concerted effort to be a foundational piece in Terry’s life. This is even if Lucky and Inez’s relationship is far from perfect.
At various points, Lucky seems to exit while Inez keeps holding to the assertive nature of her mission. They both wonder if “damaged people know how to love each other.” Each of these three characters exhibits that emotion in different ways. Much of the film's final act focuses on Terry’s perspective and the brokenness he carries around him. He’s intelligent but feels he has to mute that part of him to match his environment. However, the prior history Terry doesn’t know and the city he carries inside of him through various means (for example, the love of music he and Lucky share) often betrays him to a point.
The same can be said for Inez, a metaphor for Black mothers all around the country who have to sacrifice every being just for a chance that their children can get a hint of better. A Thousand and One is equipped with a turn that’s one of the many moments Taylor delivers masterfully. In retrospect, the audience may want more of a build-up to that realization. The ending may clean things up a little more than the story calls for because of how harrowingly natural and authentic the film can be. Even with this, A Thousand and One is a narrative that sheds light on parts of society that continue to be overlooked.
A Thousand and One opens in theaters Friday, March 31.