Runtime: 117 minutes
Directed by/Written By: A.V. Rockwell
Actors: Teyana Taylor, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Josiah Cross, William Catlett, Aven Courtney
By Tom Moore
The feature directorial debut of A.V. Rockwell, “A Thousand and One,” is a deeply moving portrayal of motherhood and a prolific era in New York City led by incredible performances and steady direction.
The film follows Inez (Teyana Taylor) – a mother who loses custody of her young son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) to the NYC foster system after being unable to stay out of prison. Upon returning and seeing Terry struggle in the broken foster system, Inez decides to illegally take Terry back under her watch and act as a better mother for him. As Terry gets older and Inez faces more struggles influenced by NYC’s changing culture, the chances of her vision for family is constantly threatened. So, Inez attempts to maintain the best life possible for Terry so that he can live a better life than she did.
As much as “A Thousand and One” is about a mother trying to do what she feels is best for her son, it’s also a gutting depiction of an impactful era of NYC through black perspective. The film depicts pivotal cultural changes and harsh new laws implemented that heavily impacted NYC during the mid-90s through the early 2000s. From the racial profiling that came from the Stop and Frisk policing to gentrification practices that continue to target the black community today, “A Thousand and One” is a harrowing time capsule of racial profiling in NYC that remains relevant.
Even though the film’s depiction of the time doesn’t always take more of the focus than it should, the film’s ties to history manage to still make an impact on Terry’s upbringing and Inez’s struggles. While Terry doesn’t say much, his pain and perspective on what he sees growing up continually alters his views and makes him think differently on things. The scenes focusing on gentrification genuinely feel like a swift gut punch because of how personal and slow building they are. Gentrification also play a big role in the film’s central family facing one of their most crushing obstacles. Rockwell does a really great job intertwining the history of its setting into its characters’ narrative to make the high emotions and stakes more complex and grounded.
The emotions that come through in the film’s introduction of Inez and Terry’s complicated relationship are where “A Thousand and One” hooks viewers into its story and characters. Terry’s initial reaction to Inez says it all – he’s nearly at the point where he doesn’t even care to recognize her as his mother because she hasn’t been around. The reality of truly losing her son clearly rocks Inez harder than any instance before and it acts as this major turning point for her. Her actions become less about herself and more about trying to give Terry a better life. This personal change adds so much more meaning to Inez’s choice to take Terry back under her care and the actions she takes to preserve and evolve her family.
While Terry clearly wasn’t growing in the foster system, his growth as a person feels clear with his mother being there to guide and provide for him. As you see Terry grow up, you really feel his sense of identity and perspective develop making him a much more compelling aspect in the film’s overall arc. Even though Inez might’ve taken back Terry illegally, which causes some tough problems down the road, it becomes clear that it’s the better choice for Terry and it’s a big way the film emphasizes the important impact of mothers. As time goes on, you really love seeing Inez push past financial obstacles, Terry find himself as time goes on, and this family really form – largely because the performances are so strong.
All three of actors who portray Terry are excellent for their distinct ages and really help bring his slow growth to the surface. They each perfectly display where Terry is at in life and Josiah Cross’ performance as Terry (Age 17) really helps heighten the emotions of the film’s crushing final act. By the time Terry is ready to head off on his own, he has his own perspective of the world and himself and it’s what makes him confront this new reality that’s forming around him as Inez’s past decision is discovered in a deeply compelling way.
The inclusion of Inez’s ex Lucky (William Catlett) is also surprisingly impactful as Rockwell’s direction and Catlett’s great performance help shed some of the initial impressions and biases viewers could have towards him. While his similarities to Inez’s past would make him seem like nothing but trouble, the film really allows his character to be dissected in personal ways and the impact he has on Terry and Inez can’t be understated. Catlett makes Lucky a very likeable character and one whose impact on Terry’s life really helps him develop into a better man. His part in the story will definitely tug and tear at viewers’ hearts and adds another layer to the family that Inez builds.
Taylor’s performance as Inez is easily the strongest and most impactful of the film though as she brings out the determination, frustration, and strength Inez showcases as a mother in every scene. Realistically, Inez is mostly on her own in trying to give Terry a more fulfilling life and really puts her family on her back to keep them afloat. Taylor excellently evokes that growing frustration and fear of everything falling apart for Inez that fuels her relentlessness for security and safety for the ones she loves. It’s an undeniably captivating performance that captures the selflessness and personal struggles mothers, specifically single mothers, have.
Taylor and Cross’ performances along with Rockwell’s stellar vision for this story also make “A Thousand and One’s” somber finale immensely memorable and heartbreaking. As Inez becomes unable to evade the inevitable consequences of her choice to take Terry back, her family starts to break down and it really feels as if they’re being torn apart by the world around them. It’s undoubtedly a crushing moment because of how the film has really made viewers immersed in and warmed by this family beating odds.
Yet, there are also these revelations about Inez being Terry’s mother and her own experience that ties to her love for him that really come through and leave things on a more uplifting and fulfilling note. Even though things end more defeating for everyone, there’s this truth brought to light that makes things feel complete and like Inez and Terry can truly be on their own without feeling like they’re apart. “A Thousand and One” defines what motherhood really means in its finale and it makes for some cathartic final moments that genuinely stick with viewers.
“A Thousand and One” is an undeniable triumph and tragedy that sees Rockwell craft a complex narrative surrounding motherhood and family in an equally complicated era of NYC. Taylor’s performance screams breakout through the grit, charm, and care she shows in every scene and the power of Inez’s story stems from the relatability and timelessness of it.