A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature “A Thousand and One” is an earth-shattering revelation. Taking place in Harlem from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, the film is not only a document of a changing city, but a portrait of love and family persevering against the odds. When Inez (Teyana Taylor) is released from Rikers Island at the beginning of the film, she is confronted with layers of instability and uncertainty. Houseless and jobless, she searches for a foot to stand on, all the while trying to reunite with the young boy, Terry, she left behind. With her future unknown, she kidnaps Terry from foster care, and with only each other to lean on, they search for home, happiness, and security in a city that’s constantly pushing back.
There is a striking understatement to the film’s climate. It’s undoubtedly a period piece, inserting us directly into 1990s New York in all its gritty, down to earth familiarity. The lack of overdone stylization grounds “A Thousand and One” into objectivity, allowing everything else to take center stage. The visuals aren’t the first thing you notice, but within the quiet moments and longer takes is the delayed gratification of its nuanced beauty.
The city of New York is a character in and of itself. Marked most prevalently by an era of massive shifts, where within 10 years the city saw the ironfisted influence of 9/11, Giuliani, and Bloomberg. These details are not background to the film, instead massively contributory. “A Thousand and One” is nimbly constructed and this is what nails its content into the foundation of unadulterated human experience.
The shifts in New York politics are not a background to the film nor a lecture in the city’s history. They play alongside the plot, not driving the events but affecting the characters’ perspectives as they encounter the circumstances they find themselves in. This is an essential detail in depicting Black life, and one that “A Thousand and One” expertly fulfills with frankness and empathy. The relationship between Inez and Terry remains the film’s forefront, but the implementation of things like rapid gentrification and “Stop and Frisk” policy are further hurdles they have to bob-and-weave to make it through.
“A Thousand and One” perfectly depicts the dynamics of Black families, particularly the inherent presence of tough love. When so many odds are systemically stacked against Black people, and so many fearfully high stakes associated with discrimination, there’s a blunt no-bullshit approach that Black parents have to implement in raising their children. Inez’s veneer of arrogance and stubbornness is just that: a veil. It’s a face she has to put on to protect herself and her son. Both as a Black woman, and with the extenuating origin of how she came to be able to raise Terry, the two of them are constant targets. And as sirens constantly ring in the background of the film, we’re never allowed to forget the extent of surveillance and danger that lurks behind the superficial shelter of their home and the only-so-powerful force of their love.
Teyana Taylor delivers a soul-stirring performance. Constantly adaptable, as Inez hits highs and lows, Taylor’s acting is pliant and on the pulse of stunning emotional pragmatism. There’s no severity, pretension, or illusions in the portrayal of Inez. She is an embodiment of Black womanhood, Black love, and Black tenacity. However, the script doesn’t write her as an idealized symbol. The beauty of “A Thousand and One” is that it has no agenda to portray a monolithic story of Black martyrdom. The unshakeable reality of the script is what wraps the film’s fingers around your heartstrings, allowing the narrative to unfold in a volatile, soul-shaking symphony.
“A Thousand and One” is a commanding film about motherhood, family, and the dexterity and flexibility of the human spirit. Utterly engrossing and demanding in its power, the film carves its own lane. Boasting incredible performances, stunning visuals, and a script laden with humanity’s best and worst, “A Thousand and One” is an adulation of filmmaking, storytelling, and Black existence itself.