Teyana Taylor may owe her first screen appearance to an episode of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16, a show devoted to the lifestyles of the young and financially well-endowed, but just watch her career-defining performance in A Thousand And One and try calling her a nepo baby.
Taylor shines so bright she dazzles the screen in a film that’s a love letter to Black women, Black mothers, and the neighborhoods that were swept away in a blaze of gentrification. That included many residents who were forced out long before even well-off white people started to think that maybe pricing entire swaths of people out of their homes might backfire.
Set in the 90s
Grainy shots of New York City reinforce the movie’s embrace of its 1994 opening setting long before we get to the fashions of the time, which include the biggest ear rings, firmly defined brow aesthetics, and beeper numbers. But just before a certain weariness about how we’re meant to appreciate that this a grittier side of a city so familiar from countless glossier treatments sinks in, establishing shots give way to Riker’s as Inez (Taylor) emerges, 22 and unapologetic.
Much like Kathleen Collins’s groundbreaking feature Losing Ground, the grainy aesthetic is no mere flourish or affectation, or merely reduced to budgetary constraints. And as Inez heads to her old stomping grounds, it’s also an informal tour of the ties she’s managed to maintain despite her background of familial dysfunction and many of the self-sabotaging instincts which typically accompany it.
This is a film that’s made no secrets of how Inez’s love for her son Terry is her driving force, but that love doesn’t define her so much as keep her afloat, providing a motivator that gives her already steely determination a focus. She builds a life out of what can only loosely be described as sheer willpower, making the bootstraps and pulling up until she has an apartment, a husband and father figure in Lucky (William Catlett), a job that pays the bills, and eventually, opportunities for Terry that could have him on track to the Ivy Leagues.
The Dream is Alive
In short, Inez carves out a tiny piece of the American Dream, and manages to provide more of it for her child. Like many so-called success stories, it’s also more complicated than that, in this instance founded on circumstances that could be generously referred to as extralegal, since Inez kidnapped Terry from foster care to keep him with her and give him a shot at a life where his ambitions could become something besides pipe dreams.
Various politicians also have vocal cameos which double as reminders of how it could all come tumbling down (and to some extent did), as various neighborhood staples close and are replaced by shiny corporate outposts, stop and frisk kicks in. On the even more personal level, smiling new landlords make their appearance, determined to push them out as passive-aggressively as possible.
A.V. Rockwell manages to weave together the political and personal remarkably well in her feature debut, if not altogether seamlessly, borrowing a bit from Moonlight as she casts Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, and Josiah Cross to play Terry at 6, 13, and 17, respectively. The change isn’t as smoothly managed as it was with Barry Jenkins, with Terry showing little in terms of growth as he struggles to adjust to the secrecy in which Inez has cloaked his life, and his mother and stepfather’s deteriorating marriage.
Portrait of a Black Woman
Simplistically uplifting stories are nowhere to be found, but it is refreshing for Rockwell to give Harlem some of the much-needed attention which is bestowed more often on flawed, complex portraits of Black women in Brooklyn, including Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. and Mother of George. A Thousand And One more than earns its place, with Taylor proving the standout almost by circumstance, since nearly every performance, no matter how brief, feels worthy of descriptors like lived-in, phenomenal, and capable of holding their own on any screen, any time.
Mothers kidnapping their children from a dysfunctional system have fueled many a news story, TV movie, and Law & Order episode, but few have been so concerned of the lives of people on the periphery as A Thousand And One, including those who can’t quite accept the prospect of a better future, with Catlett giving an exceptionally layered portrayal of a husband and father so damaged by his own experiences he is unable to fully give and accept love.
Where the detritus from a life constructed and partly undone washes up exactly is left frustratingly and heartbreakingly undone. Chances are it’s somewhere beyond the watchful gaze of the grid, but as Rockwell movingly delineates, they can still leave behind something that lasts. In the best of circumstances, it’s love.
Rating: 9/10 SPECS
A Thousand And One plays in theaters March 31.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.
She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.