Making her feature film debut, A THOUSAND AND ONE, writer/director A. V. Rockwell has recreated the world of 1994 New York City, particularly Harlem. Raised in Queens, Rockwell was well aware of the gentrification going on all around her --- and its effects on her, her family and neighbors --- on all people of color.
Wanting to expound on that trauma, Rockwell has crafted a remarkable story centered on a former prison inmate, Inez De La Paz, played with a special ferocity by R&B performer and choreographer, Teyana Taylor. Before going to prison, Inez was a hairstylist in Brooklyn, but once she is paroled there is no work for her.
Struggling to cobble together clients on her own, one day she espies her six-year-old son, Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), on the street. Learning he was recently placed in a new foster home, one in which he had fallen out of a window, she takes him with her and they escape to Harlem. Inez manages to find employment and raises Terry in a loving home, along with her on-again, off-again partner, Lucky (Will Catlett).
A THOUSAND AND ONE moves forward to 2001, with Terry now played by Aven Courtney, then again to 2005 and another cast change to Josiah Cross, who is Terry at seventeen. One thing that doesn’t change is the love mother and son have for one another. Obviously these two have their issues, but they both grow and mature, sharing a formidable bond. Lucky plays an important role in each of their lives, providing some stability for Inez, whenever he’s around --- and a father figure for Terry.
Rockwell’s screenplay is dynamic. Her writing is superb in its ability to capture the essence of these complex characters --- the city itself being one of them. A THOUSAND AND ONE is not a tragedy, but instead the powerful and inspiring story of a strong Black woman who would not be denied. Inez’ tenacity and perseverance is to be admired and revered. And Rockwell’s writing and directing prowess is flawless.
Taylor’s performance is astounding. Her interactions with all three Terrys are intuitive and believable. And she shares an amazing --- and playful --- chemistry with Catlett, whose portrayal is equally incredible.
But the main thrust of A THOUSAND AND ONE lies in the pivotal performances of Adetola, Courtney and Cross, especially. These three young actors are outstanding and without their stellar achievements playing this conflicted son, Rockwell’s film would not be the success it already is, winning a Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Opinion: See It Now!
Writer/director A.V. Rockwell --- wanting to tell a story of a young Black woman in Harlem, a mother desperate to give her young son a decent upbringing while also trying to get her own life together, selected Teyana Taylor to play the pivotal role of Inez De La Paz. Taylor, a native of Harlem herself and already known as an R&B singer and choreographer and not an actor, clinched the role with her audition for Rockwell.
A THOUSAND AND ONE is Rockwell’s feature debut. She is a native of Queens and her film is 100% dialogue driven with strong performances from the entire ensemble cast. And although the story is not very uplifting there are definite moments of poignancy as we follow Inez, her son Terry at three different ages (Aaron Kingsley Adetola at six, Aven Courtney at 13 and Josiah Cross at 17) and Lucky (Will Catlett), her husband and Terry’s stepfather.
This is not a typical slice-of-life Black drama. Devoid of crime, gangs and foul language --- except for Inez --- Rockwell transports the viewer into a low-income existence most of us cannot imagine. Eventually problems with their apartment become an issue --- no working kitchen, leaking ceiling --- and even a funeral wake is conducted on the street.
Rockwell touches briefly on the mayoral reign of Rudy Giuliani and his policy of “stop and frisk” which unfairly targeted young Black boys. The stereotype of the white landlord who appears to actually care about his Black tenants --- but doesn’t really --- is on display.
There are inherent problems when casting different actors to play the same character. The youngest Terry is quite captivating, and 17-year-old Terry finds himself in a dilemma about going to college, which threatens to ruin his life. As for Lucky, the stepfather proves to be, overall, a good companion for Terry and his mother, although his “transformation” comes a little too easily.
The odd title to this film is briefly alluded to when we see Inez’ apartment number as 1001. And A THOUSAND AND ONE has the appearance, initially, of a black-and-white film, but as New York City becomes gentrified, cinematographer Eric Yue injects more color into his work. Overall, it's an excellent beginning for first-time feature director Rockwell.
Opinion: See It Now!