A stellar achievement both in storytelling and in acting, "A Thousand and One" lands as one of the year's best films, and one that will linger with you well beyond the ending credits.
Writer/Director A.V. Rockwell becomes an instant front-runner for "breakthrough" talent of the year. In this, her first feature-film, she creates a raw and emotional story about a family, set against a backdrop of an ever-changing New York City. Equally brilliant is the lead performance from Teyana Taylor, who has been on the scene for years as a singer, actress and choreographer, but who will soon rocket to fame after people discover her performance in this film.
"A Thousand and One" takes place over several years, first introducing us to Inez (Taylor) when she is released from prison in 1994. Glad to be out but with not much waiting for her on the outside, Inez is still shackled by her past. She's a talented hair-dresser but nobody wants the baggage she carries. Inez attempts to reunite with her six-year-old son, Terry, who has been swept up into the foster care system with Inez away.
Things get...complicated, but never manipulative. It's a broken system to be sure, but Inez makes a choice to take Terry with her, unbeknownst to his newly appointed foster parents or those in power. She raises the boy (the film's title is in reference to the small, beat-up apartment that they call home, the apartment number so damaged that it just reads as "1001").
Terry is played by three different actors across three different time periods: Aaron Kingsley Adetola as a child, Aven Courtney as a teen, and Josiah Cross as a young man on the cusp of 18. This is his story as much as it's Inez's, as the two represent the broken dreams - and the broken promises - that are effectively churned out of our American way of life.
There's a sort of doom that hangs over the story, permeating each moment. This can't end well, we're thinking. Inez is represented not as some glorified martyr but as a real woman, complete with a whole hell of a lot of flaws and vices. When her on-again-off-again hook-up, Lucky (William Catlett) comes into the picture, he makes it clear to her that raising Terry was not part of the plan.
It's at this point in the story where things shift, completely subverting our expectations and pulling us in directions we never saw coming. Lucky isn't the type of character that we think he'll be. He has many facets and is full of surprises.
So is "A Thousand and One." It's unflinching in its depiction of this mother and the world in which she finds refuge, for her and for her son. Sins of the past become sins of the present. What's going on in the larger, outside world is weaved into Inez's story, but the bigger picture is in the peripheral. All that matters to Inez, and so many others in similar positions of poverty and racial inequality, is what is going on front-and-center.
Whomever came up with the "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" moniker might be reminded of the famous quote by Martin Luther King Jr. who said in response to this that: "...It's a cruel jest to say [this] to a bootless man."
There are more than a thousand and one reasons to see this film, so just make sure you do.
Genre: Drama, Crime.
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes.
Starring: Teyana Taylor, Terri Abney, Delissa Reynolds, William Catlett, Amelia Workman, Aven Courtney, Josiah Cross, Aaron Kingsley Adetola.
Written and Directed by A.V. Rockwell (feature-film debut).
"A Thousand and One" is in theaters on Friday, March 31st, 2023.
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