"A Thousand and One" Review
Through the grainy filter capturing the hustle and bustle of the streets of Harlem, writer/director A.V. Rockwell, making her feature directorial debut, showcases her skillfulness at creating a lived-in setting for her story. Initially set in the mid-1990s, you see people with beepers, boom boxes, gold chains, and ripped jeans. The World Trade Centers are still standing, signaling how different of an era this was. But not everything has changed since then, with the aggressive “anti-crime” (a code word for racial profiling) politics of former mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg being a consistent threat over the decades. People get stopped for random frisks, neighborhoods become gentrified, and the police presence is always felt.
Inez (singer Teyana Taylor) is one of those people living on the fringes of this world. She just got back from an extended stay at Rikers Prison and is in the process of figuring out how to move on. One of the first people she sees from across the street is her sort-of young son, Terry (it’s complicated), who’s been shuffling around foster homes since she left. Inez is a child of the foster care system as well, and she’s a lot of herself within Terry. She knows that he’ll end up just like her if he continues to be stuck on this path. To break the chain, Inez illegally “kidnaps” Terry from his foster home and moves him uptown, giving him a new name, Daryl, and a fake birth certificate in the process. Years eventually go by, with Inez and Terry making the most out of their makeshift situation. But Inez knows this lie will come crashing down once someone starts to wiggle that bottom block.
Similar to how she creates the world around her characters, Rockwell has the world push back against them. Inez is always having to fight for what she has, whether it's the landlord’s shady attempts at getting her to leave so he can flip the building or being unable to support herself through a job she cares about like hairstyling. Years and years of that wear on her, with Taylor being a great illustrator of this.
Those hardships burrow into Terry as well, with Rockwell taking the Moonlight approach of having three different actors (Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, and Josiah Cross) play the boy between the ages of six and seventeen. The choice may not work as well compared to what Barry Jenkins did for his Best Picture-winning film, but all three performers here find a connective thread that they weave together.
While the influence of Moonlight becomes more heavily evident as A Thousand and One marches on with its slightly overextended 116-minute runtime, none of it feels like a secondhand imitation. Eric K. Yue’s beautiful cinematography and Gary Gunn’s fluttery score give warmth in the most tender moments. The coldness is always present as well, being an aching reminder of how close to the edge these characters live.
A Thousand and One tells a story of the past and the future, with each character having to reckon with where they stand in their timeline. Rockwell has delivered an impressive debut, worthy of the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize awarded to her at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Between her career behind the camera and Taylor’s in front of it, there’s an immense amount of talent on the rise.