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A mother faces 'A Thousand and One' obstacles in this unconventional NYC film

Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola play a mother and son in <em>A Thousand and One. </em>
Sundance Institute
Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola play a mother and son in A Thousand and One.

A Thousand and One begins in 1994, shortly before a 22-year-old woman named Inez is released from Rikers Island. We don't know much about her, but Teyana Taylor, the electrifying actor who plays her, tells us plenty just from the brashly confident way Inez strides through her old Brooklyn stomping grounds after a year away.

As she greets old friends and looks for work as a hairdresser, Inez is determined to put the past behind her — though that becomes impossible when she runs into her 6-year-old son, Terry, on the street. Terry was sent to foster care when Inez went to prison, and while he resents her for leaving him, he'd clearly rather be with her again than in his current situation.

And so when Terry has an accident at home, Inez impulsively springs him from the hospital and takes him to the Harlem neighborhood where she grew up. They lie low for a while, though it soon becomes sadly clear that nobody's really looking for Terry, who's just one of many kids who've slipped through the cracks of the foster-care system. Inez grew up in that system herself, and she wants to give Terry the loving home she never had.

Soon she finds them a rundown Harlem apartment — the number on the door, 10-01, is one explanation for the movie's title. Over the next several years, this apartment will be their home, but it's a precarious one, where every happy moment feels both fleeting and hard-won.

Inez works long hours to provide for herself and Terry, a gifted student whose teachers think he could be Ivy League material. Eventually, Inez marries Lucky, an old boyfriend played by a charismatic William Catlett. While not the most faithful husband, Lucky becomes a genuinely loving father figure to Terry.

Terry is played at ages 6, 13 and 17 by the actors Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross. The use of three actors to play a young Black man at different ages has already earned the movie comparisons to Barry Jenkins' sublime 2016 drama, Moonlight. But those similarities aside, A Thousand and One focuses more specifically on the young man's mother. Taylor, an R&B performer in her first leading film role, conveys the full weight of Inez's sacrifices. By the end, the sensual, free-spirited woman we met in the opening scenes has become visibly sadder and wearier, though still possessed of the same devil-may-care defiance.

If A Thousand and One were just a story about a mother and son overcoming the odds, it would be moving enough. But the writer-director A.V. Rockwell, making a strong feature debut after years directing shorts and music videos, gives this intimate drama a sharp sociopolitical context. Even as Inez and Terry grow older, the city around them is changing, too. At the beginning, the Harlem we see pulses with grit and energy, shot in a vibrantly kinetic style and set to a '90s hip-hop beat. By the end, the neighborhood has been gentrified beyond recognition, as reflected in the movie's cooler, gloomier palette and its many shots of anonymous-looking office and residential buildings.

Rockwell doesn't shy away from detailing how these shifts have impacted communities of color in general, and Inez and Terry in particular. They're gradually forced out of their apartment by a new landlord who wants to tear the building down. Terry and his friends face routine police harassment — a development that Rockwell intersperses with real news clips covering Mayor Giuliani's embrace of "stop and frisk" policies.

None of this comes off as didactic; Rockwell deftly weaves her commentary into a story that turns out to be less conventional and more surprising than it looks. She also reminds us that there's more to both Inez and Terry than their tough circumstances. We see this in the playful scenes of 17-year-old Terry flirting with a girl behind a restaurant counter, or the poignant moment when Inez — rather than picking a fight with one of Lucky's girlfriends, as she might have once done — instead treats her with decency and grace.

Rockwell has such a sure grasp of her characters and their complexities that she's able to end the story on a boldly unresolved note. I left the movie thinking about what might lie ahead for Inez and Terry, and feeling grateful for the time I'd spent in their company.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.