Plot via Sundance
Struggling but unapologetically living on her own terms, Inez is moving from shelter to shelter in mid-1990s New York City. With her 6-year-old son Terry in foster care and unable to leave him again, she kidnaps him so they can build their life together. As the years go by, their family grows and Terry becomes a smart yet quiet teenager, but the secret that has defined their lives threatens to destroy the home they have so improbably built.
A Thousand and One, A.V. Rockwell’s sweeping and powerful first feature hop scotches through time exploring a black mother’s (Inez- Teyana Taylor and son’s (Terry- played initially by 6 year old Aaron Kingsley Adetola and later by young adult Josiah Cross) bonds and relationship. It covers roughly the time period from 1994-2005 Harlem. The three time jumps focus on 1995, 2001 and 2005. In-between secrets and lies will be exposed, but the focus stays on how the two struggle to stay a family in an environment that is perpetually under threat.
The time lapse story allows Harlem to also become a character. Local storefronts are replaced by big chain stores. The neighborhood is slowly gentrified from black to white as tenements become trendy brownstones. The policies of Rudy Guilliani and Michael Bloomberg get a raking over via tabloid headlines.
Ultimately, A Thousand and One settle into a family drama, nicely shot, edited and acted, about black dreams and the crushing blow to them caused by white politics and justice.
Rockwell gives A Thousand and One a realism that feels truthful but can be a little loose and slightly unfocused. It will slip into awkward rhythms and pacing at times.
The shift in story focus from Inez to Terry is handled clumsily.
The kid is quiet and awkward and inward. It’s consistent but his character is never fully defined. He remains a blank given a big blow up scene in the finale. It stands out because the fury speech is long, nicely written and superbly acted by Josiah Cross.
This void between Terry and Inez is never fully contextualized just gestured to by director Rockwell. As a result , the story seems half formed. The big twist at the end aims for an emotional surprise that isn’t fully earned.
Still, the vision is commendable if not perfectly executed.
A Thousand and One gets a 3.5 out of 5, a B+.
ERIC K. YUE
AARON KINGSLEY ADETOLA