Honoring Motherhood — Warts and All — in a Rapidly Changing Harlem

Instead of deploying familiar hard-knock-life themes as dramatic shorthand, ‘A Thousand and One’ elevates them as down and dirty facts of life without a whiff of cliché.

Focus Features
Teyana Taylor, left, as Inez de la Paz and Aaron Kingsley Adetola as Terry in 'A Thousand and One.' Focus Features

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “A Thousand and One” explores a headstrong young mother’s steely resolve to create a sense of family for her young son in a rapidly changing Harlem. The film is not simply about the coming of age of the boy, but of the mother as well.  

The story spans two decades, beginning in the 1990s when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center still looms over the city and Puff Daddy still dominates the airwaves. Immediately upon her release from Rikers Island, Inez (Teyana Taylor) tracks down 6-year-old Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), who’s not thrilled to see her. 

She promises to stay out of trouble this time. Terry suffers a head injury at his foster home, prompting Inez to impulsively abduct him and start a new life for the two of them in Harlem, where she herself spent her formative years bouncing between foster homes and shelters.  

Inez is adamant about ensuring that Terry has everything that has eluded her: family, education, and opportunity. After initial housing and employment arrangements prove untenable, she rents a room and gets her landlord’s referral to work as a custodian in a Queens nursing home. 

Inez’s boyfriend, Lucky (Will Catlett), soon joins them following his own prison stint. As much as Inez wants him to be a dad for Terry, Lucky resists as they aren’t blood kin.  

Writer-director A. V. Rockwell weaves a tapestry that provides context to the shifting times and obstacles the characters face over the two decades. Social services often fail their clients because of one-size-fits-all policies and unforgiving bureaucracy, and this syndrome is on full display here. 

As the neighborhood thrives under Mayor Giuliani, scheming landlords and gentrifiers move in and displace long-time residents. Ms. Rockwell doesn’t simply conjure these as signs of the times; she demonstrates how they affect the lives of these characters. 

In the hands of a less dexterous filmmaker, a story like this could easily succumb to overripe melodrama or afterschool-special fare. Instead of deploying these familiar hard-knock-life themes as dramatic shorthand, Ms. Rockwell elevates them as down and dirty facts of life without a whiff of cliché. 

Eric Yue’s handheld cinematography and natural lighting instill a documentary-like gritty texture, while Gary Gunn’s lush vintage-sounding brass score augments a sense of timelessness. 

Ms. Rockwell also resists any temptation to cast blame on convenient villains. Although Lucky frequently drops in and out of the picture, he too matures in due course, taking up an honest job and assuming the father figure role to the now 17-year-old Terry (Josiah Cross). 

The bureaucrats who sometimes serve as the story’s adversaries do take their duties seriously and show proper concern for their charge. Ms. Rockwell is also astute enough to show that we are sometimes our own worst enemies. Essentially having to grow up on her own, Inez faces a steep learning curve on becoming a responsible adult. 

Ms. Taylor, a singer who has ventured into other areas of late, delivers a transformative performance, embodying Inez from an argumentative young woman who must fight for everything to a resilient powerhouse for her son. In the later scenes, the actress emanates wisdom and craft beyond her years. Just as Inez holds her family together through sheer will, Ms. Taylor carries this magnificent film. 

“A Thousand and One” is a singular achievement that honors motherhood — warts and all. Although Inez is far from a perfect human being, she does in her own way try to be the best mother she can be for Terry. And she succeeds, even if she does not anticipate the hefty price she will one day pay. She makes her share of mistakes, but her struggle is imbued with a love that is unmistakable and unassailable. 


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