Writer-director A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature, A Thousand and One, is a tremendous, sprawling big city epic contained within an intimately realized, highly detailed family drama that unfolds over the course of more than a decade. Finely tuned to a wide range of human experiences and the lies and secrets families keep in a bid to stay together, A Thousand and One is a symphony of gradually building emotions that won’t soon be forgotten.
Teyana Taylor delivers a captivating and rich leading performance as Inez, who in 1994 at the age of 22 is released from New York City’s infamous Rikers Island and is keen to get back into her old life. One of Inez’s primary objectives is to get back in touch with Terry, the six year old son she was forced to leave behind. Terry has been in foster care, but after an incident lands her child in the hospital, she takes off with her son to Harlem, where she grew up. Over time, Inez is able to keep authorities from realizing that Terry has been living with her; eventually reconnecting with her old boyfriend, Lucky (William Catlett), and giving the child a stable base to build a future on. But as Terry grows older, and life in New York City gets more complicated, family dynamics are strained under the weight of their shared secrets and shifting tides.
The relationship between Inez and Terry (played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola at age 6, Aven Courtney at age 13, and an exceptional Josiah Cross from age 16 onward) is deftly handled by Rockwell and her cast without harsh judgment. A Thousand and One is a film that handles difficult subject matter with tact, realism, and a well hones sense of morality that forces the viewer to think long and hard about Inez, Terry, and Lucky’s situation. Although it tries to cover a lot of ground, and some developments could’ve been melodramatic if handled by a lesser filmmaker, A Thousand and One is one of the richest and most complicated family dramas in recent memory.
A Thousand and One is also one of the best looks at the myth-making behind Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg’s respective efforts to “clean up” and gentrify New York City ever put to film. The constantly shifting power dynamics in the city become a character that repeatedly puts Rockwell’s characters in jeopardy, painting a portrait of a place that wants to court upwardly mobile white people to move there, while constantly pushing those in greatest need further and further into the margins. While A Thousand and One might wrap up in the mid-2000s, it depicts political and social impacts that continue to resonate today.
This is a smart and daring work that establishes Rockwell as a major creative and social force.
A Thousand and One screened as part of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
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