Politics is always personal, and writer/director A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One keenly understands this. The Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning drama is a family portrait unfurling in Harlem, spanning nearly a decade from the early 1990s to the early 2000s. It’s a deeply human and personal story, set against the changes in New York over a decade, exploring and exposing the real cost and consequences of these changes. Grounded by an astounding performance from Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One deftly crafts a family melodrama that highlights the necessity of defying systems that fail the people they supposedly serve.
Freshly released from prison, Inez de la Paz (Taylor) is determined to make a fresh start for herself and her son, Terry (Adetola), who’s been in foster care while she’s been away. It’s an environment she grew up in, too: So, weary of a system that’s kept her son and with no other options, she kidnaps him and the pair starts over in Harlem, where Inez grew up.
Together, along with Lucky (Catlett), Terry’s father, the trio becomes a family. Yet building a family comes with its own complications, let alone doing it in an ever-changing, rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The years pass: Terry becomes a teenager (played as he grows by Courtney and Cross), city policies change, and life goes on. Soon, Terry will graduate high school, but his clandestine escape from foster care and a devastating secret emerge, changing everything.
A Thousand and One hums with familiarity and warmth for its setting and characters, which is one reason it’s such an affecting and engrossing family melodrama. Eric Yue’s gorgeous cinematography and Gary Gunn’s score reflect this nicely, inviting us into this family’s world no matter the time.
Even the way the film uses audio of different mayors and news anchors outlining awful policies highlights the obstacles ahead for the family, grounding the film in their reality. Their film delivers on the audiences’ investment in tender, quiet moments the characters share with each other, whether it be heart-to-heart conversations between Lucky and Terry or scenes of everyday life in the neighborhood.
However, it’s Taylor’s performance as the loyal, determined Inez that gives the picture its heart and soul. The actor captures Inez in all her complicated nature: fiercely loyal, hotheaded, compassionate, and often exhausted with the burden of holding her family together through it all. It’s a committed, engrossing performance, and the film falters toward the end as it shifts away from Inez to Terry.
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