Imagine you’re a young black woman who’s made your first feature film. You’ve written and directed a movie that’s not only been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, it’s also getting a little festival buzz. You’re at the festival with your breakout star and producers and then you win the Grand Jury Prize for the US Dramatic Feature. What a wonderful honor. Can you imagine how A.V. Rockwell must’ve felt?!
She’d previously created short films. One of which, “Feathers” (2018), attracted the attention of Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani (Hillman Grad Productions). Waithe invited her to direct an episode of the “Boomerang” series for television. Rockwell pitched a feature film that she was developing and got the greenlight to start work on the project that became “A Thousand and One”.
A love letter to Harlem and the women who are often overlooked or misrepresented, “A Thousand and One” positions the lead character as a symbol for NYC. It’s a deeply personal story of an inner-city NY woman struggling to find stability and make a home for her son. Rockwell has set the film over three periods of time: 1994, 2001 and 2005. There are three actors who play the three different ages of Inez’s son, Terry. The cinematography and the music reflect the different eras and news clips reveal what’s going on in NYC during those times.
There will be comparisons to Barry Jenkin‘s Oscar-winning film, “Moonlight” (2016). Rockwell is also a young black filmmaker who’s made a film with three different actors playing the same character over time. But there’s another Jenkin’s film that’s a more apt comparison, “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008). That film captures a unique sense of place–San Francisco. Not iconic SF, but SF as seen throught the eyes of a young hipster couple in a specific time period, early 1990’s. Rockwell captures NYC (and Harlem in particular) in such rich detail. In that way, “A Thousand and One” is more like Jenkin’s debut film.
Rockwell cast a native New Yorker and a mother as her lead in the film. Teyana Taylor is an R&B singer in her first starring role. She’s a fierce presence. The film opens with Inez striding through her Brooklyn neighborhood having just been released from Rikers (Rikers Island, NYC’s largest jail). Dressed in a red tank top and sporting huge gold earrings, she’s a vibrant, loud young woman. Scrambling to find work as a hairdresser, she reconnects with her son, Terry, who’s been in foster care.
When it’s clear that Terry will be moved into a new foster care home, carrying all his possessions in a black garbage bag, Inez makes the fraught choice to take him with her. Though she has no home and no job, she knows that it’ll be difficult to reconnect with Terry once he’s been moved. All she has is the knowledge that she needs to create a place for the two of them. She’s desperate to give him the love and stability that she never had.
Taylor is outstanding in the role. Inez is a complicated human—volatile, tenacious, proud and bitter but with a great tenderness and love for Terry. As she makes choices to keep the two of them safe and stable in their tiny apartment (1001 is their apartment number), we see Terry’s extreme joy as he bounces on his first bed; his first room of his own. There are moments of joy with scenes of Inez reading books to Terry and playing ball. But Inez is traveling 2 hours by train to clean houses. She’s no longer as vibrant and Terry is left alone. There are compromises that need to be made, including a new identity for Terry.
We see the fear and mistrust of the police and the effects of the stop-and-frisk policy. Terry is often stopped as a young black man and Inez lives in fear that he’ll be taken away from her. As Harlem goes from gritty, noisy and colorful to becoming cleaner but less welcoming to Mom & Pop shops and migrants, so too, Inez changes. She’s weary and wearing black. No longer sporting bright jewelry and coiffed hair, she’s worn down. From strutting down the street, she’s now shown trudging. She’s married now and that provides Terry with a father. He’s doing well in school and they have some stability.
As gentrification takes over Harlem and Inez continues to struggle with her philandering husband, more color bleeds from the film. The landlord seems to be trying to force them out. Terry finds out he needs to face up to his stolen identity. It seems that Harlem is no longer a safe haven for Inez and Terry. As Rockwell said in an interview at the Santa Barbara film festival, “NY is a part of my DNA…how do I feel about the fact that a city that I know and love, may never have loved me?” Gentrification is pushing out poor New Yorkers.
There’s a life-changing revelation toward the end of the film that casts a whole new light on the story that you’ve become invested in. It made me think that the title (“A Thousand and One”) could also be a reference to 1001 Nights, the Arabian fantasy of outlandish tales. You’re left wanting to know more. And as the characters set out, once again with all their belongings in black trash bags, you want them to find happiness and stability again.
For filmmaker, A.V. Rockwell, her love of NYC is a complicated love. For Inez, her love of Terry is a complicated love. “One Thousand and One” is full of unresolved questions and complex feelings and a portrait of NYC that you may not have seen before. It’s a truly astounding debut film and a remarkable performance by Teyana Taylor.
Drinks with Films rating: 3 bottles of beer served on the stoop in Harlem (out of 5)