[Part of Geek Vibes Nation’s coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.]
A Thousand and One feels like home.
If you grew up in New York City, especially Harlem, I mean that literally, although it’s accessible to anyone. It’s one of the first things you notice about A.V. Rockwell’s directorial debut, about a young single mother fighting poverty and encroaching gentrification to provide for her son. ‘90s era Harlem is as much a character as Inez (Teyana Taylor), brimming with dizzying vibrance in every frame. Through stunning cinematography and a rich soundtrack, Rockwell immediately conveys a sense of history and community, where friends, family, neighbors, and strangers pick up where local governments never bothered in the first place. You feel the authentic warmth of the block in the impromptu gatherings and greetings from across the street. The crackling spirit and resilience are comforting and familiar to anyone who’s ever experienced life in a Black neighborhood.
Rockwell’s rendering of Harlem is a compelling backdrop for Inez’s complicated experiences with motherhood. After spending a year at Rikers, she returns and finds her son Terry, who was adopted into the foster care system after her arrest. Even though she has no job or home, Inez decides to take him with her and out of the system. That crime leaves the pair on the edges of society, bouncing between short-term arrangements and precarious situations. Her goal is modest but immensely difficult given their circumstances: to find stability and a better future for Terry. Their journey spans the entirety of his childhood, intersecting with Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral efforts to clean up New York, frequently at the expense of Black communities. Despite these changes and their complicated pasts, Inez is unwavering in her commitment to them staying together, no matter how far apart they may feel.
That spirit, derived from the inherent resilience of Blackness, permeates A Thousand and One. Rockwell’s film centers and celebrates the oft-overlooked nuances of Black communities, and she surprises with her complications of subversions of the stereotypes that can accompany Black stories. Terry grows from a child whose inconsistent parental presence makes him skeptical and quiet to a young man who finds comfort in his naïveté. Inez’s ex-lover Lucky, who moves in with them after his release from prison, has the makings of an abusive partner by way of his initial reluctance to Terry. The weariness between them in Terry’s youth slowly melts into a touching tenderness that Terry doesn’t realize he craves. Their stepfather-son relationship is a gift of Black fatherhood that authentically rejects toxicity and encourages healthy interactions.
Meanwhile, Inez is a powder keg of contradictions, and Teyana Taylor brings them all to life brilliantly. She has a startlingly natural presence, cutting an imposing figure capable of intense vulnerability. You can see Inez’s rapid-fire resourcefulness and propensity for anger in the subtle changes on her face. Taylor carries Inez’s deeply-held trauma in her eyes and voice, keeping it to the margins but close enough that she can call upon it for an off-color joke. Inez’s pain and anger never overwhelm Taylor. She still makes space for joy and sweetness alongside Inez’s default mechanisms of fighting or disengaging. Taylor gives a stunning performance, inspiring genuine empathy for Inez and the patterns she can’t help but perpetuate.
Inez’s fledging household can be volatile; long absences and bitter resentments easily run amok. There’s plenty of potent drama, but A Thousand and One balances it delicately with the family’s fierce love for one another. The dynamics are so compelling that Rockwell almost loses grip of it. The film moves briskly through time, hopping between new settings and periods, sometimes without full context. While the gaps are understandable, they feel abrupt and leave you wanting more time with Inez’s family. The interpersonal drama also rests uneasily with exploring over-policing and gentrification in Black neighborhoods. They are critical issues to the community and factor into the family’s lives through Terry’s stop-and-frisk encounters and Inez’s difficulties with a new white landlord. However, the story beats pop up inconsistently, and the film can’t quite settle on how central or peripheral they are.
Narrative quibbles aside, what makes A Thousand and One excellent is how it lives and breathes community. Rockwell’s remarkable feature evokes familiarity and spirit that audiences can soak in, feeding it through the shifting rooftops and the cracked plaster of the apartment ceilings she captures on screen. She touches on a specific corner of the Black American experience but leaps past the typical pillars and lands in a space of warmth that stories like these are rarely afforded. That warmth surrounds you, holding you close as Inez does Terry, even when everything seems impossible. It feels a lot like home.