Written and directed by A. V. Rockwell
Reviewed by Danielle Papamichael
A Thousand and One, A. V. Rockwell’s heartfelt debut feature, stars the singer, songwriter and choreographer Teyana Taylor, whose powerful performance marks her first leading role. The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, is a coming of age family drama, a layered story with raw and complex characters at its core.
Set in New York, and spanning over a decade from the mid 90s, we follow fiery twenty-two-year-old Inez (Taylor) who has just been released from the notorious Rikers Island prison. Determined to get her life back on track, she sets out to pursue a career in hairdressing. But it all comes to a halt when she reconnects with her six-year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) who is currently in foster care.
Shortly after their reunion, Terry jumps out of a window trying to escape from his foster mother. This results in him having to go to hospital. Inez, who was also raised in the system, knows he will be taken back into care after this incident, inevitably arresting the development of their fragile bond. She can’t conceive of any other option, so she decides to kidnap him and move to Harlem.
Inez is homeless and jobless, with no family or real support, yet manages to get by. Using counterfeit documents, she enrols Terry in school, where he excels. The search for him quickly dies down. Inez starts working as a cleaner and manages to rent a flat. She then marries her on and off boyfriend, Lucky (William Catlett), who steps in as a father figure to Terry. We watch the family stabilise as Terry grows up, played by three different actors at the ages of six (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), thirteen (Aven Courtney) and seventeen (Josiah Cross). Their performances are of great depth, gentleness and nuance.
Throughout the film, Inez’s perseverance and determination to lay the foundations for a normal life feel doomed. The fear of Terry’s identity being discovered remains constant and this is not the only obstacle Inez faces. New York has changed rapidly over that decade. Rockwell projects the voices of mayors Rudy Guiliani and Michael Bloomberg over the rooftops of the impoverished communities that are being devastated by their policies. She shows the injustice of gentrification, how it pushes vulnerable people like Inez out of their homes, and how it not only destroys communities but erases their culture and identity. She also shows thirteen-year-old Terry being frequently stopped-and-frisked by police; a racist policy that traumatises young boys and men and evokes nothing but fear for Inez and other mothers in similar socio-economic circumstances.
A Thousand and One shines a light on an often-overlooked narrative – the resilience and determination that Inez holds to better her son’s life. She selflessly provides, despite the many obstacles and inner demons. Taylor’s performance is a brutal yet heartbreakingly vulnerable one.
Portraying the intricate and complex relationship of a mother and son who are desperately trying to stay afloat in a society that has turned their back on them, A Thousand and One doesn’t promise a happy ending but shows that there can be light within the darkness.