Teyana Taylor gives a powerhouse performance in A Thousand and One, A.V. Rockwell’s heartfelt drama about motherhood in a gentrified New York City.
December is a month for everyone in the film industry to recharge – to start doing end-of-year lists, to see the upcoming awards season contenders, and to look forward to next year’s big releases. Regarding the latter, next month will see the 2024 iteration of the Sundance Film Festival. One of the great films from this year’s festival was A Thousand and One, which won the main Grand Jury Prize. This promising feature debut from writer-director A.V. Rockwell is a heartfelt portrait of Black motherhood set against the backdrop of a New York City slowly being gentrified beyond all recognition.
1994. Inez (R&B artist Teyana Taylor) has returned to her Brooklyn neighbourhood after being released from Rikers Island. Her six-year-old son Terry (played initially by Aaron Kingsley Adetola) is in foster care and has recently been hospitalised following an attempted escape. Knowing that he will be moved into another home – and that she will lose contact with him – Inez takes Terry away to Harlem to start a new life. Soon, she gets their own apartment and a fake birth certificate for her son. Then, her old boyfriend Lucky (Will Catlett) returns. He may have also left prison recently, and he may often be absent and unfaithful. But he and Inez get married to provide Terry with the life – the togetherness and family – that they never had.
Years later, Terry (played as a teenager by Aven Courtney, then Josiah Cross) is set to go to college. However, the family’s secret threatens to resurface and destroy everything. And then Terry uncovers an earth-shattering lie.
In her first lead role, Teyana Taylor gives a powerhouse performance as the unapologetic and determined Inez. The character can be frustrated, affectionate or volatile in any given situation, but behind that is someone trying to do right for her son, the only bit of family she has left (Inez grew up in a group home after losing both her parents). “I’ll go to war for you,” she says to Terry, and you wholeheartedly believe her. Elsewhere, the film employs the same three-actors-as-one-character device as Moonlight or another Sundance 2023 hit, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt. Josiah Cross gets the most to do, peeling back the hurt and pressure behind Terry. Will Catlett is also really solid as Lucky, an imperfect but fatherly figure in Terry’s life.
The title from A Thousand and One comes from the number of Inez and Terry’s apartment, 1001. Their home becomes the focal point of the movie, particularly as it looks at the effects of gentrification on New York City. The three years Rockwell chooses are significant. 1994 is when Rudy Guiliani becomes the city’s mayor and brings with him promises of prosperity. By 2001, that meant stop and search policies (also known as a Terry stop) and the tearing down of Harlem buildings. And by 2005, the gentrification is supercharged under new mayor Michael Bloomberg and literally arrives at Inez’s doorstep, as her shady new landlord tries to force the family out.
Rockwell witnessed this disconcerting metamorphosis of her city first-hand, which seems to have brought a personal touch here. The film feels lived-in, from the constant sirens and horns in the distance to the overhead shots of the city accompanied by archive audio of Giuliani and Bloomberg. Eric K. Yue shoots the first half with vintage lenses to create a ‘90s-esque sheen, providing a warmer look compared to the sections set in the 2000s. And Gary Gunn’s score – inspired by East Coast hip-hop and Quincy Jones (the legendary producer is referenced a couple of times in the film) – soars brilliantly throughout.
There is something delicately novelistic in the way A Thousand and One tackles its themes of family and gentrification, helped by a range of nuanced performances (especially from Teyana Taylor). Its realism weans by the end, meaning the conclusion is a little underbaked. However, the rest of this terrific film is a bold yet subtly told drama following the bond between mother and son, telling the sacrifices made for a better life as well as the future effects of them. In the same way, decisions made to make a better New York have sweeping consequences. Towards the end, one character emotionally asks: “Where’s home for me now?” They do so in a changing city that has left many displaced people asking that same question.
A Thousand and One is now available to watch on digital and on demand.