A Thousand and One 2023 Movie Review
Over the course of writer-director A.V. Rockwell’s feature debut A Thousand and One, time can feel like it is slipping through our fingers. Much like life, the choices we make and the paths we take can only be understood upon looking back when it is too late to do anything different. When seen via film, this can have a devastating impact. When done well, it becomes something like experiencing life in short snapshots with all its many moments of heartbreak and happiness. In this story of a mother doing all she thinks is best for her son, the strongest moments are when we get a chance to sit with the characters and let them reflect on these parts of their lives. From the opening scene, where the sounds of mid-90s New York City draw us into the world of the characters all the way to the end when they get swallowed up by it, there is a rich tapestry of ideas and themes that are brought to life in stunning detail. It ensures that, even when the story itself can often feel like it is losing sight of its characters, there is a poetic beating heart that still finds an emotional resonance as the years slip away.
Initially, the driving force of all this is a riveting Teyana Taylor as Inez, who is trying to get back on her feet in Harlem after a year in Rikers Prison. This is not so easy as the world remains a harsh one that is compounded by the fact that she does not have a place to stay. Taylor, who most recently did voice work for the animated film Entergalactic, captures the fortitude that Inez carries with her to survive which is also crossed with a growing desire to build a life for herself and her son Terry, who she ends up kidnapping out of desperation. Played at a young age by Aaron Kingsley Adetola, he understands much about what is going on around him.
In one scene where Inez is getting into a confrontation as her frustration boils over, Rockwell makes sure to subtly draw our attention to Terry nearby on the stairs. This is done with a light touch, but it already begins laying the foundation for how he will grow into a teenager that has to contend with as much, if not more, as his parents before him. It is almost like a novel in how expansive it is, providing a sense of scope that can frequently leave this story feeling scattered. As the city is in a constant state of change, the lives of the characters are similarly in flux as their already pressing problems only become more and more dire.
Rockwell makes this explicit as we hear multiple interjections from a figure who was once hailed, at least by certain segments of the country, as a hero though has now been exposed as a hateful fraud from the very jump. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, and his endorsement of the debunked “broken windows” theory in a response to crime not only didn’t work but led to the use of discriminatory “stop and frisk” policing. This is conveyed via the voice of the man himself that echoes throughout the streets where Inez and Terry live.
It takes on a nightmarish quality as we know that this will only have a negative impact on them as well as other Black residents of the city. Rather than addressing the root causes of the city’s problems like poverty, which is baked into the fabric of this family’s daily life, the leaders seek to punish those most struggling to survive. Rockwell shows that alongside this is the increasing erosion of businesses and culture through gentrification. Both of these elements are intertwined to serve as a historical backdrop for Terry on the cusp of adulthood where we see the world more through his growing perspective and understanding of it.
This refocusing, while not entirely misguided, means that we lose much of what Inez is going through after all these years. It is done to make clear that there is a growing schism between the two, which connects to a revelation that this piece won’t give away, but it holds her a little too far out of frame. Taylor still gives a multifaceted performance, with one closing monologue hitting home unlike anything else in the film, but the story still feels a bit empty without her. In many ways, it lessens the impact of what happens when the past comes knocking and upends the already precarious life that she had been building for so long. Eschewing any catharsis which would be experienced in a conventional film, it creates a more crushing conclusion that reveals how the trajectory of the era always meant that Inez was living on borrowed time. It serves as a tragic time capsule where the characters don’t know what joys they were able to have together will be taken away in the blink of an eye.
There is something rather pointed about how, of the few other characters we get to meet, all believe they are looking out for Terry even as they set in motion events that will cause more harm for him and those he cares about. Even those that speak compassionately are, at the very least, complicit in crushing the small life he was able to live for a little while with his mother. In this closing series of cascading catastrophes, Rockwell reveals that the political belief of needing to punish has painfully personal implications for those caught in the system’s crosshairs. Though it can feel like the characters are lost in this, much of this is the point as they’re stripped of their humanity and merely identified as a problem to be fixed.
There is no attempt to find true restorative justice as, like the outstanding recent film Saint Omer, we see that far too much has gone wrong over the course of several years to be fixed so easily. This film is not as sharp as that, but it remains clear-eyed in the moments when it counts. It provides a snapshot of the life of one family that, for better and worse, could be any other that gets swept aside in the pursuit of a “safer” world that comes at their expense.