Photo Credit: Aaron Ricketts/Focus Features
Teyana Taylor Gives a Breakout Performance in Harlem Drama 'A Thousand and One'
Teyana Taylor performance bursting with energy in A Thousand and One.
A.V. Rockwell’s feature directorial debut A Thousand and One, (which is now playing in theaters) moves at a constant rhythm, with a score as alive as the bustling Harlem streets the film takes place in. Everything feels musical, from the sounds of cars speeding by to the constant footsteps on the sidewalk. People talk fast, argue often, and it all feels like part of the soundscape. Harlem has a pulse, and Rockwell excels at restoring it to its former glory as a cultural mecca for Black and Brown people just trying to get by.
It’s the early ‘90s and Inez (Teyana Taylor) knows how to hustle, doing anything she can to make it. After a stint in Rikers, she’s trying to pick up exactly where she left off, doing hair and spending time with her son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola). Even though the system has him now and he’s living with foster parents, that doesn’t stop Inez from trying to give her son the family and structure she never had. After tracking him down and convincing him to trust her again, she hatches a plan to take Terry without either of them getting caught. Together with her on-and-off boyfriend Lucky (William Catlett), she tries to craft a normal, everyday life in the midst of a rapidly changing New York.
We follow Inez and Terry as they both grow and mature together as mother and son, with Lucky being present yet emotionally remote. He doesn’t connect to Terry the way Inez wants him to, and much of their conflict stems from her pressure on Lucky to be a better husband and father. Like Inez, Lucky is used to doing time and living hand-to-mouth. And though he wants more for Terry, he struggles with the feeling that he’s simply not up to the role of patriarch. But Inez is determined to hold on to the two most important people in her life, even when her abrasiveness threatens to erode everything.
Terry is a gifted child who loves music, with his passion being the underlying heartbeat of the film. Even when he isn’t on screen, the music reminds us of him and his potential to make something of himself as an artist, with the film’s score — composed by Gary Gunn — almost feeling like a preview of what’s to come for Terry if he makes it as a musician. In one particular scene, we watch young Terry enjoy a television interview with Quincy Jones as he discusses his work as a film composer. From that point on, it seems he’s found his calling. By 13, Terry (now played by Aven Courtney) is selected to attend a special school and clashes with Inez over whether or not to go. By the time he turns 17 (Josiah Cross), their relationship has improved greatly, but a devastating secret threatens both their futures.
Teyana Taylor gives a breakout performance as Inez, bursting with energy and star power in every scene. Her expressive eyes betray her every emotion, even as she speaks quickly and loudly to cover them up. Much like her performances on stage and in music videos, Teyana Taylor remains in constant motion. Inez takes on motherhood like a race, rushing through her internal checklist. She always has a plan, even when her actions look reckless on the outside. Catlett balances her energy, playing Lucky with a quiet, contemplative masculine presence that evokes the early work of Delroy Lindo and Laurence Fishburne. Adetola, Courtney, and Cross all bring different dimensions to Terry, from his deeply sensitive nature to his artistic and romantic pursuits.
But what makes A Thousand and One so notable is how it focuses on Inez. Working-class Black women like Inez are often background characters in stories about troubled, struggling men. These women are seen through masculine eyes as distractions or temptresses — negative forces dragging a man down or trapping him into a domestic situation that snuffs out their hope and creativity. Race and class through the eyes of male directors like Spike Lee expose the ways Black women are marginalized even in stories of struggle and hardship. We’ve seen New York primarily through the eyes of men (with mothers being supporting characters), and there is often an underlying implication that these women couldn’t possibly understand the weight of familial responsibility and how that conflicts with loftier goals. Rockwell’s film feels like a response to what is lacking in these stories. Inez’s mothering and support of Terry is depicted as the full-time job it actually is, with Rockwell showing us her sacrifice instead of simply discussing it in the dialogue. Despite a lack of resources, Inez approaches motherhood as her highest calling while still trying to tend to her own needs and navigating a gentrified Harlem.
A Thousand and One is the kind of Black story that rarely gets the budget and attention it deserves. It’s a multi-layered family drama that places us right in the heart of it all, portraying the ugliness and the beauty in equal measure, resulting in a promising debut from Rockwell.