A Thousand and One
Written and directed by A.V. Rockwell
Starring Teyana Taylor, Aaron Kingsley Adetola and Aven Courtney
Classification 14A; 118 minutes
Opens in select theatres March 31
The celebrated winner of the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance this year, the new drama A Thousand and One entered the festival sphere as the anticipated feature debut from New York writer-director A.V. Rockwell. An instantaneous addition to the contemporary Black filmmaking canon, the Queens, N.Y.-born filmmaker lends her own knowledge and experience to the screen as she tells the story of Inez, a formerly incarcerated woman struggling to make ends meet in Harlem, who kidnaps her son from foster care.
Following Inez (Teyana Taylor) and son Terry from 1994 through 2005, A Thousand and One is a thoughtful study of Black motherhood and Black boyhood as well as a sharp period piece tracking the changing social and political climate of New York. Inez and Terry’s story is inextricable from the targeted gentrification of Black and brown neighbourhoods, the rise of the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy under then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, and the police brutality that resulted in the heinous assault of Haitian-American Abner Louima and the murder of Guinean student Amadou Diallo.
Much like the New York storytellers who came before her (Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese come to mind), Rockwell works in a nostalgic mode. The filmmaker elevates the everyday life of New Yorkers to the level of portraiture with her loving gaze – women’s hair perfectly styled after hours of work, a pack of Newport cigarettes deftly pushed into a back pocket, Wu-Tang Clan blaring out of every and any car on the street. All of these details are taken stock of by Rockwell to shape an environment that is as crucial to the film as its plot, its beautiful cinematography or its emotive score.
There is a deep, well-considered cultural history on display here that allows the film’s transitions through time to be utterly seamless. From Polo to Sean John and beepers to AOL, Rockwell makes easy, impressive work of placing her audience in a specific time and place. It’s the kind of nostalgia that is so effective for its maker having clearly lived it. And while A Thousand and One is a look back at a kind of Black life that once was in America, it is also a testament to what Black life was up against, too, particularly for Black women.
Taylor is radiant as Inez, thanks to her ability to materialize a learned hardness born of survival and experience, as well as an innate softness formed from the knowledge that she deserves to be shown up for. As a once incarcerated woman who is now trying to evade the so-called authorities over the course of two decades, Inez is met with the violence of respectability politics and unending tone-policing at every attempt to make a better life for herself and Terry.
In a world where her every move is rebuffed by the inequitable world around her, Inez is positioned by others as the maker of her own consequences – a failure, rather than someone who has been consistently and systematically failed. Alongside this, too, is the ever-present spectre of an urgent sort of intergenerational arithmetic – the awareness that her labour and sacrifices (and that of the Black families who came before her) could and must benefit future generations.
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It is tempting to call A Thousand and One a love letter of sorts, but a more accurate read might be one of heartbreak. There is love here, certainly, but more than that there is frustration, anger and sadness at the way the world refuses to help those trying hardest to endure within it. Wisely locating her characters at the intersection of race, class and gender, Rockwell takes stock of their losses and challenges, their joys and moments of respite, all within a city that is indifferent to them.
By the time A Thousand and One’s closing act upends our assumptions about Inez and Terry’s relationship, what remains is the desire and the hope that, despite everything, one might still be able to care and be cared for.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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