Review: A Mother and Son Attempt to Forge New Futures in A Thousand and One, to Devastating Effect
A work filled with secrets and lies, but also hard truths that seem like a dare to those in the film to survive and even thrive, first-time feature writer/director A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One (produced by Lena Waithe) is a powerful work about the spirited and fiercely protective Inez (Teyana Taylor, primarily known as a dancer, choreographer and singer). Whens he gets out of jail, she promptly kidnaps her six-year-old son Terry (played at that age by Aaron Kingsley Adetola) from the foster care system and goes into hiding, initially living with her best friend Kim (Terri Abney) in Brooklyn. Fearing being found out by the police but also somewhat aware that no one is really looking for her or her son because New York City doesn’t have time to worry about missing Black children, Inez and Terry end up eventually moving into an apartment in Harlem and living a comfortable existence.
As the film progresses, the filmmaker cleverly sneaks in references to both Inez’s history and fiery temperament, as well as what’s going on in New York City during the early years of Rudy Giuliani’s mayorship. One of the many things that A Thousand and One makes clear is that Harlem at the time exists outside of what happens in the rest of New York; Inez knows this and is able to hide in plain site, giving herself and Terry new identities to move forward through life. Terry is played at 13 years old by Aven Courtney and 17 by Josiah Cross, and all three of the young actors portraying the character are exceptional, especially Cross, who has moments of emotional vulnerability that I can’t recall seeing a child actor play so convincingly. Terry begins his development under the most unloving circumstances imaginable, and he not only has to learn to trust Inez when she devotes herself to his care, but by the end of the film, he almost cares too much about her and the world around him and begins to fall apart in ways you simply never see represented on screen.
The introduction of a male figure in Terry and Inez’s life (with William Catlett’s Lucky) is both crucial and tragic to Terry’s upbringing. Lucky devotes himself to loving Terry, but when he falls ill when Terry is 17, this misfortune represents such a setback for the young man. Just when opportunities begin to present themselves to Terry, his false identity marks the beginning of the dismantling of this part of his life. While this very intimate destruction is happening, we hear on the radio and see on TV that Mike Bloomberg is elected mayor in 2002, and Harlem begins to become gentrified, with Inez’s landlord basically forcing them out by not repairing broken pipes in a timely manner. The world around Inez and her son is literally crumbling around them, and while the metaphor may be a bit on the nose, the story seems necessary and is beautifully executed. This is a film that doesn’t need to hit you over the head with its message to make its points; it simply lets the truth of the situation do the heavy lifting, with devastating results.
Going into A Thousand and One, I had no idea how strong an actor Taylor would be, but she is the embodiment of a lifetime of anger, disappointment and regret, and Inez sees her son as perhaps the one good thing she has brought to this world. As a result, her treatment of him is sometimes built of those expectations. She rides him to succeed, and things get incredibly tense between mother and son at times. But again, it all rings true, even if their story doesn’t play out how you think it will. One of the first truly great films of the year, A Thousand and One is about the shifting definition of home and stability, and it will leave a mark on your heart that you won’t soon forget.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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