January 31, 2023

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‘A Thousand and One’ Review: Gritty 90s-Set Motherhood Drama

4 min read

One of the many things that sets “One Thousand and One” apart from the others, similarly hard-hearted tales of urban struggle, poverty and marginalization can be felt practically from the start, as director Avi Rockwell introduces Inez (R’n’B Performer and choreographer Teyana Taylor) walks down the sidewalk along a painted brick wall in Harlem in the early 90s. The way composer Gary Gunn’s symphonic music swells and swirls on the soundtrack, and the way the camera looks down on her as it tracks her purposeful progress, give this ordinary woman, who we already know, recently released from Rikers Island, a heroic status.

Rockwell uses the full range of cinematic expression to turn a small, often tragic story of raw dealings and rash decisions into an admirable portrait of survivorship, tenacity and resourcefulness. Inez may be part of a stratum of society that the system prefers to ignore, but she is anything but invisible.

On the street, Inez sees Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), the little boy she left behind — not for the first time, it seems — and placed in foster care while going to prison. She is desperate to talk to him, but Terry hides behind her classmates and won’t get involved. Some time later, a friend informed her that the child had fallen from a window while trying to escape from her foster family and was in the hospital. This time, when Inez meets him, he chokes. The toys he brings her may be “corny” (he’s more into Power Rangers at the moment), but he slowly warms up, until it’s time for Inez to leave and a heartbreaking hollow look of abandonment crosses her face.

On impulse, but with Terry’s eagerness, Inez takes him out of the hospital. She’s determined to be her mother, even if it means she’s guilty of kidnapping a ward of the state, even if she has no job, no place to live, and few friends she hasn’t already somehow alienated.

Eventually he scraped together enough from odd jobs to afford a small rental walkup. He buys Terry fake papers, calls him by another name, and enrolls him in school, where he quietly thrives. Her on-off boyfriend Lucky (Will Catlett) is released from prison and for a while they are a family of three, until Lucky leaves again. Terry accuses Inez of driving him away. So it goes: Absent parents can be idolized; That gets the blame to stick out.

Still, years pass (the film spans nearly two decades) and Inez’s guard relaxes a bit. But of course they’re on borrowed time, especially when Terry (played by Josiah Cross at 17) begins to assert her independence, wanting to step out into a world that doesn’t know her true identity. Long-held secrets are doubly dangerous when breached. Who knows what other revelations will happen in their wake?

Inez is Taylor’s gift of a role for a committed performer, and she tears through it, giving what her breakthrough performance deserves (she made her film debut in 2021’s “Coming 2 America”). In almost every moment onscreen, he’s an energetic, outgoing personality whose abrasive, combative flaws are hard to tell by his abrasive, combative qualities. “I’ll go to war for you,” he vows to Terry, “this whole town will fight for you.” Its like a street, experience-tough love. Tenderness is expressed as anger, defensiveness is expressed as scolding. The ferocity of her motherly love is both surprising and terrifying, but she knows what it takes to keep her little family together, in a cruel world that will never fully trust her motives.

Although it’s deeply felt, the Inez/Terry story is really only half the achievement of “One Thousand and One.” The other, parallel strand is an impressively accomplished portrait of a changing New York City, tracked through offscreen TV news coverage of Giuliani’s jaywalking crackdown, his infamous stop-and-frisk policy, and finally the election of Mayor Bloomberg. Inez’s early ’90s kiss curls and chunky golden hoop earrings are out of fashion, the white neighbors are gone, the old locals are gone. Even Eric K. The tenor of U’s rich, dynamic cinematography also changes, with the intense vibrancy of earlier installments giving way to a cooler palette and a more restrained, less mobile aesthetic.

Soon Inez is met by the smiling face of gentrification herself, her seemingly new landlord Jerry (Mark Gessner), who arrives to make unnecessary upgrades that “accidentally” make the apartment unlivable. “Be from Harlem, but not of Harlem,” his friend Kim (Terry Abney) advises him years ago. But in many ways, Inez is Harlem, and the story of trying to keep the system at bay in the protection of his son, becomes Rockwell’s sensitive handling, also a story of a troubled neighborhood that loses a brave but losing battle against erasure in the name of progress.

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