A Thousand And One


Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

A Thousand And One
"Rockwell’s realist style and sense of history helps keep the story engaging, but the real reward for the viewing comes in the emotional final act." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A Thousand And One begins with a kidnapping, but turns out to be more about life than crime. Based on its opening, it would be reasonable to expect the story of an ex-con mother and her son to play out over the course of a few days on the run. I can picture the dramatic and heartbreaking scene in which the law finally catches up with the main characters and separates them. Instead, we watch the child grow into a gifted teenager while his city and neighbourhood change around him.

Writer/director AV Rockwell’s film won the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for telling a powerful story that spans an eventful decade and a half in Harlem. While clocking in just under two hours, the film takes on an epic shape as it weaves rich characters into a modern history of New York City.

The story opens during the 1990s, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani waged war on petty crime as part of his campaign to clean up the city, and runs to the early 2000s, when stop-and-frisk policies were implemented under Michael Bloomberg’s administration. At its heart, the story is a personal one, but Rockwell recognises that politics and policy shape her characters’ lives, and does not shy away from exploring how various social developments impact real people. For example, the life of teenagers is significantly different when cops have the right and duty to stop and search them in the middle or an ordinary afternoon.

The film opens with a short visual prelude in 1993, as our heroine Inez (Teyana Taylor) is detained at Rikers Correctional Facility, doing makeup for another inmate. Then a year later, fresh out of prison, she visits her son, Terry, in the hospital after he hurts his head in an accident while in foster care. She doesn’t have custody, but when she’s getting ready to leave, she decides she can’t leave him there and they make a run for it.

The early drama captures the difficulty of reconnecting with friends and family after incarceration. Inez is desperate for a place to crash with her and her son, but all her bridges have been burned. “You keep fucking up,” the six-year-old tells her after a string of failed calls from the phone booth. Eventually, she finds a place for $350 a month — not a rate you could get close to in modern Harlem — and begins to rebuild her life.

Even Terry is surprised the law isn’t looking for him. His mother explains that they did too good of a job hiding him, but doesn’t tell him how. Eventually, the whole episode fades as everyday life sets in. Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross seamlessly portray Terry from age 6 to 17, while William Catlett is superb as Lucky, Inez’s longtime boyfriend who moves in with them.

The writing in some of the material with Lucky feels a bit less profound and a bit more like a standard coming-of-age tale, but Catlett sells the character beautifully. Rockwell’s realist style and sense of history helps keep the story engaging, but the real reward for the viewing comes in the emotional final act.

The finale is worth arriving at without spoilers, as its emotionally riveting conclusion is likely what earned it Sundance’s most coveted award. Taylor should receive recognition for her show-stopping conversation with Cross as the film lands on its devastating conclusion.

The title comes from the number of the rundown apartment where the family lives during the movie, 10-01. But the hyphen has fallen off the door. the door, making a much larger, more impressive number. Rockwell doesn’t stress the metaphor, it’s only mentioned once in passing, but the idea of something much bigger coming from those two small numbers is the heart of the film. Finding that apartment is Inez’s salvation at the most difficult time of her life. It’s hard to imagine Inez find that same salvation in the Harlem of 2023.

Reviewed on: 29 Jan 2023
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Convinced it's one last, necessary crime on the path to redemption, unapologetic and free-spirited Inez kidnaps six-year-old Terry from the foster care system. Holding on to their secret and each other, mother and son set out to reclaim their sense of home, identity, and stability in New York City.
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Director: AV Rockwell

Writer: AV Rockwell

Starring: Teyana Taylor, Will Catlett, Josiah Cross, Aven Courtney, Aaron Kingsley Adetola

Year: 2023

Runtime: 117 minutes

Country: US

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