SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! A Thousand and One, the debut feature by writer-director A.V. Rockwell, is set in 1993, New York. We first meet Inez (Teyana Taylor), a strong-headed, fierce, and determined 22-year-old hairdresser being freshly released from Rikers Island. We follow her through the hustling and bustling streets of Brooklyn as she tries to get back to her routine. But everything’s a challenge when you have a rap sheet and a rebellious attitude. One day she sees her son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) and wants to reconnect with him. The boy is in foster care, as she was, but things seem quite bad for him. So, knowing that she could not legally obtain custody, she kidnaps him.
After struggling for a few days, Inez and Terry settle in a rundown Harlem apartment, where they finally start anew. They hide in almost plain sight as Inez knows that the system doesn’t care about black children or their communities. She and her son may not always understand each other, but they now have a chance to truly bond and get to know each other despite their baggage and feelings. The duo’s odyssey spans a decade beginning with a mother and son running from the law for their greater good and to be able to live unbothered as a family.
Over the years, Inez evolves into a caring but harsh parent making necessary sacrifices for her child’s success. Life is also not easy for single Black mothers, particularly in ’90s New York, when policies, culture, socio-economic factors, and the city itself was dramatically changing. Nevertheless, Inez persists and succeeds as Terry (now played by Aven Courtney and Josiah Teal) grows into a clever, respectful, and sensible student with a brilliant future ahead of him. Moreover, there are beautiful days in this neighborhood, wherein A Thousand And One highlights a couple of precious moments of tenderness while mainly telling a “tough-love-mother-son” story.
“…a mother and son running from the law for their greater good and to be able to live unbothered…”
Inez also eventually finds a father figure for Terry and a partner in childhood friend and ex-con Lucky (William Catlett). Like Inez, he strives to be a better person and parent despite looking, and often acting, tough or losing his way. They are both trying to overcome their circumstances and redeem themselves from their past, which unfortunately started in the system, by not replicating the tragic generational trauma cycle and keeping Terry’s secret, one that will lead to a devastating twist.
Catlett is genuinely captivating as a character that could have been cliched but felt natural. The actor contains multitudes: he’s menacing but aware of his predicament and has a strong moral compass. But frankly, every actor, even the extras, helps give the movie its realness. Accordingly, Taylor is a revelation here and is truly a star. She’s not only the right person for the job but seemingly the only one, embodying the protagonist’s raw emotions, resourcefulness, and “spicy” attitude. The three actors portraying Terry from childhood to adulthood — Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, and Josiah Cross — are likewise all great, enacting Terry’s quietness and sensitivity.
The film is also complimented by a transporting grand score and a fashionably 90s look with all the visual cues and a nostalgic mood, adding to an authenticity that only a few have managed to render so successfully. To boot, A Thousand And One is heightened by the weaving of archival footage and recording in the narrative. Rockwell draws parallels between the city that never sleeps and people like Inez who need rest.
A Thousand And One is a soul-stirring film with lived-in stories about marginalized individuals and their inner daily struggles at their finest. It shows us life in its beautiful complexity and unjustness, full of complicated people that are not all good or bad but just trying their best against bad odds. As Inez attests, “there’s more to life than f***d up beginnings.”
A Thousand and One screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.