Review: “A Thousand and One” offers a grim New York survival story

Mothers are often the keepers of secrets, fueled by a primal survival instinct. But mysteries fester, grow larger, and inevitably burst before the resonance of truth, as they do in writer/director AV Rockwell’s debut film, “A Thousand and One.” The film, which won the US Drama Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, tells the harrowing story of a mother and her son against a backdrop of gentrifying Harlem.

“A Thousand and One” proves to be a flagship for hyphenated Harlem star Teyana Taylor, who gives her amazing performance the curled-up physicality of a panther ready to pounce. Her character, Inez, is on offense as the only form of defense, an attitude and ethos that has never wavered in all the years we’ve followed her.

Breathtaking aerial footage set to soulful strings introduces us to the iconography of New York City: the Empire State Building, Central Park and of course Rikers Island, home to New York City’s largest prison. It’s 1994 and we meet inmate Inez in a tender moment: she’s gently applying makeup to another inmate. She’s soon released back onto the streets of Harlem, offering her services as a hairdresser and desperately trying to stay out of the shelter.

Her quick, confident movements are captured in cropped, grainy, handheld images. Cinematographer Eric K. Yue also uses pans and zooms that hark back to 1970s New Hollywood films, placing this film in a long tradition of gritty New York indie filmmaking.

Aaron Kingsley Adetola (left) and William Catlett in the film “A Thousand and One.”

(Aaron Ricketts/Focus/TNS)

A wrinkle in Inez’s survival story manifests itself, a wrinkle that will soon become her destiny and her driving force: her little boy Terry (the wonderfully instinctive Aaron Kingsley Adetola), who lives in foster care. When an accident takes him to the hospital, Inez works his way back into his heart with Power Rangers toys and good times. She asks if he would like to stay with her for a little while – after all, a son should live with his mother. They crash at a friend’s house and eventually land their own place in a brownstone, Inez doing her hair in her room for cash. Since she essentially kidnapped him from the government, she pays a guy to get a fake birth certificate for Terry, who passes Darryl at school.

The story of Terry and Inez, and later Lucky (William Catlett), their boyfriend who becomes a father figure to Terry, is simple. But the vivid quality of the material makes this story seem as real and at times almost weirder than fiction. It’s not a true story, but it comes from a place of truth, and in her writing and directing, Rockwell brings a hyperspecificity to the film, be it in the way young Terry spends time alone at home, or into the fumbling courtship he does as a teenager (played by Aven Courtney). It’s the speeches Lucky and Inez Terry give about striving for more than what they’ve experienced that manage to never seem wrong or strained.

The film is absolutely captivating, anchored in the unpredictable performance of Taylor, who plays a hopelessly complicated but deeply caring woman. Faced with dire circumstances, she survives and then dares to imagine a life for Terry beyond the cycle she experienced and forge a family unit she never had. Through sheer willpower, she brings her to a point where she can see his bright future; But when 17-year-old Terry (a notable Josiah Cross) accidentally repeats some of his mother’s actions in 2005, it seems a grim fate.

Beyond the decisions Inez made out of fear and worry when she was 22 years old and fresh out of prison, there are greater forces at play. The home she has made begins to crumble along with the breaking up of her family unit. Their new landlord puts on a helpful face and offers to fix things, but underneath his smiling exterior he seems to want them gone and the house eventually becomes inhospitable when Terry needs it most.

Rockwell continued to evolve the film’s style over the years, using the city’s haunted aerial footage as a stylistic motif and a means of locating the viewer and signaling the time seeping into the atmosphere. During a climax conversation between Terry and Inez the picture was stripped of all color, the two pictured are in stark contrast to the white walls. All that’s left between them is the messy, complicated truth, though the shades of gray are thrown into shocking blacks and whites.

A Thousand and One is a fascinating portrait of the maternal, feminine instinct trapped in an unforgiving world. Taylor’s Inez, possessing a tenacious capacity for self-preservation, stays one step ahead, constantly moving forward, a soft glimmer of hope, her only cold comfort.

Katie Walsh is a film critic for the Tribune News Service.

“Thousand and One”

Rated: R, for language

Duration: 1 hour 57 minutes

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