A mother faces 'A Thousand and One' obstacles in this unconventional NYC film
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "A Thousand And One," which won the grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival, opens in theaters this week. It's the first feature film written and directed by A.V. Rockwell. And it follows more than a decade in the lives of a mother and son struggling to survive in a fast-changing New York City. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "A Thousand And One" begins in 1994, shortly before a 22-year-old woman named Inez is released from Rikers Island. We don't know much about her. But Teyana Taylor, the electrifying actor who plays her, tells us plenty just from the brashly confident way Inez strides through her old Brooklyn stomping grounds after a year away. As she greets old friends and looks for work as a hairdresser, Inez is determined to put the past behind her. Though, that becomes impossible when she runs into her 6-year-old son, Terry, on the street. Terry was sent to foster care when Inez went to prison. And while he resents her for leaving him, he'd clearly rather be with her again than in his current situation.
And so when Terry has an accident at home, Inez impulsively springs him from the hospital and takes him to the Harlem neighborhood where she grew up. They lie low for a while though it soon becomes sadly clear that nobody's really looking for Terry, who's just one of many kids who've slipped through the cracks of the foster care system. Inez grew up in that system herself, and she wants to give Terry the loving home she never had.
Soon she finds them a rundown Harlem apartment. The number on the door, 10-01, is one explanation for the movie's title. Over the next several years, this apartment will be their home. But it's a precarious one, where every happy moment feels both fleeting and hard-won. Inez works long hours to provide for herself and Terry, a gifted student whose teachers think he could be Ivy League material. Eventually, Inez marries Lucky, an old boyfriend played by a charismatic William Catlett. While not the most faithful husband, Lucky becomes a genuinely loving father figure to Terry.
In this scene, Lucky and Inez walk down the street reflecting on how far they've come.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A THOUSAND AND ONE")
WILLIAM CATLETT: (As Lucky) Yo, you remember what it's like when we were coming up?
TEYANA TAYLOR: (As Inez de la Paz) I remember.
CATLETT: (As Lucky, laughter) You should be proud of yourself, Inez. You made it. You don't seem happy.
TAYLOR: (As Inez de la Paz) You think Terry resents me?
CATLETT: (As Lucky) Teenagers hate everybody, but I do sense a little void in him. First couple of years of his life, he had nobody. Kid's still walking around here with a broken heart.
CHANG: Terry is played at ages 6, 13 and 17 by the actors Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross. The use of three actors to play a young Black man at different ages has already earned the movie comparisons to Barry Jenkins' sublime 2016 drama, "Moonlight." But those similarities aside, "A Thousand And One" focuses more specifically on the young man's mother. Taylor, an R&B performer in her first leading film role, conveys the full weight of Inez's sacrifices. By the end, the sensual, free-spirited woman we met in the opening scenes has become visibly sadder and wearier though still possessed of the same devil-may-care defiance.
If "A Thousand And One" were just a story about a mother and son overcoming the odds, it would be moving enough. But the writer-director, A.V. Rockwell, making a strong feature debut after years directing shorts and music videos, gives this intimate drama a sharp sociopolitical context. Even as Inez and Terry grow older, the city around them is changing, too. At the beginning, the Harlem we see pulses with grit and energy, shot in a vibrantly kinetic style and set to a '90s hip-hop beat. By the end, the neighborhood has been gentrified beyond recognition as reflected in the movie's cooler, gloomier palette and its many shots of anonymous-looking office and residential buildings.
Rockwell doesn't shy away from detailing how these shifts have impacted communities of color in general and Inez and Terry in particular. They're gradually forced out of their apartment by a new landlord who wants to tear the building down. Terry and his friends face routine police harassment, a development that Rockwell intersperses with real news clips covering Mayor Giuliani's embrace of stop-and-frisk policies.
None of this comes off as didactic. Rockwell deftly weaves her commentary into a story that turns out to be less conventional and more surprising than it looks. She also reminds us that there's more to both Inez and Terry than their tough circumstances. We see this in the playful scenes of 17-year-old Terry flirting with a girl behind a restaurant counter or the poignant moment when Inez, rather than picking a fight with one of Lucky's girlfriends, as she might have once done, instead treats her with decency and grace.
Rockwell has such a sure grasp of her characters and their complexities that she's able to end the story on a boldly unresolved note. I left the movie thinking about what might lie ahead for Inez and Terry and feeling grateful for the time I'd spent in their company.
GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "A Thousand And One."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Samara Joy will perform some songs for us. Last month, she became the second jazz performer in Grammy history to win best new artist. She also won for best new jazz album. We'll also talk about her gospel roots. In her teens, she was a soloist in her church choir. Her father toured with gospel star Andrae Crouch. Her grandmother co-founded a jazz choir, which Joy's grandfather also sang in. I hope you'll join us. I am Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOCIAL CALL")
SAMARA JOY: (Singing) Happened to pass your doorway, gave you a buzz, that's all. Lately, I've thought lots about you, so I thought I'd pay a social call. Do you recall the old days? We used to have a ball. Not that I'm lonesome without you. I just thought I'd pay a social call. I'd lie and say things are just swell. But to tell the truth, I haven't been too well. But if you should try to kiss me, promise that I won't stall. Maybe we'll get back together starting from this incident, oh, elemental...
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