When New York native A.V. Rockwell wrote the screenplay for her first full-length film, One Thousand and One, she knew exactly what it was going to look like. Taking place in the ’90s, a time period that is often depicted via bouncy fashion and slang that comes with an expiration date upon arrival, Rockwell instead reconstructs the era from crowded stoops, wilted posters plastered on bodegas, and the concrete determination to survive into the story’s central character, Inez (Teyana Taylor). At 22 years old, Inez is released from Rikers and immediately struts down the streets looking for an honest hustle. Though she sets her sight on building a hairstyling business, Inez can’t ignore her 6-year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) quietly standing amongst other boys on the corners. In the midst of switching foster homes, Terry is swooped by Inez in secrecy and on the mutual promise that they stick by each other no matter what.
Their secret, only shared by Inez’s finicky boyfriend Lucky (William Catlett), then recedes from the film’s sweeping pilgrimage between Inez, Terry (also portrayed by Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross at 13- and 17-years old, respectively), and the endurance of that promise. The spectacle becomes a sort of nails for breakfast, lunch, and dinner experience. Inez is the ultimate personification of tenacity, which is a requirement in weathering the rapid gentrification of New York as a Black woman. She barely cracks a joke (though there are parts where I laughed because she would say things that only a mother really could). Terry is terrified of her. Lucky receives physical abuse on his end. When her friend’s mother accuses her of bad parenting, Inez pushes her in blind fury. Outside of David Makes Man composer Gary Gunn’s score, there is little music that steers a scene’s essence. Watching Inez is like sitting across the table from her in silence, where you can see that she is worried and analytical about the next day, hurt and anxious about the past, and waiting to make sure that you clean everything off your plate before you leave the table. It is sometimes scary and uncomfortable, but always enthralling.
It’s the kind of alignment between Teyana Taylor and A.V. Rockwell, who have already dabbled in acting and directing, that makes A Thousand and One a moving powerhouse for both players. I think of the new show Swarm, where Dre’s serial-killer patterns are only noticed by a Black female detective. In the same way, Inez’s motherly brashness and navigational skills in urban suffocation can be crafted by Taylor and Rockwell because their minds and experiences behind the character shape the nuances between the physicality and the unspoken. Though it isn’t explicitly autobiographical, A Thousand and One is the culmination of real life, from young mothers to suspicious landlords to scholarly opportunities (in a 2014 interview, Rockwell describes a conversation she had with her mother about going to a technical high school, which plays out in a similar conversation that Inez has with Terry). And if I can fangirl for a bit, I’ve always been excited for Taylor. From My Super Sweet 16 to casual skateboarder that was told to stop from Skateboard P himself on the day she was signed to a record label to apex predator in one of my favorite music videos, I had a feeling that Taylor would be big in some form. Stunt casting might be the wrong term to describe Taylor, especially at her first top bill project, but if there was ever an intention to do so, the effect worked and will always work on me.
One of the film’s commendable feats, and something that I feel like a lot of people will take away from the film, is the ability to actually feel like the ’90s. The textural footage of the changing cityscape under Giuliani and Bloomberg (an older Terry is stopped and frisked on his way home) is accomplished by cinematographer Eric K. Yue, who resuscitates air into the spaces where generational history is torn down and unlivable profits are legalized (I’m reminded of Jonah Hill shooting mid90s in 16mm with a 4:3 aspect ratio to mimic skate clips on VHS). Still, even in the metamorphosis, Inez and Terry are still clung to each other. At the end, when the curtains are pulled and the dust settles, the last frame is of Inez smiling in the backseat of a car. It’s an uneasy resolution, but if there was a character that can hold a promise to this day, it would be her.
A Thousand and One
dir. A.V. Rockwell
Opens Friday, 3/31 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre