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“A Thousand and One”

Though A. V. Rockwell’s first feature, “A Thousand and One,” sticks close to one woman amid her struggle to keep her family together in the face of formidable obstacles, it’s an epic story, stretching over more than a decade and seemingly inscribed on the mighty map of New York City at large. The large scale of the action is itself an artistic achievement; the movie’s scope is essential to its emotional impact, which is inseparable from its dramatization of individuals who, in their daily and private lives, find themselves inevitably, grindingly confronting public power as a relentless counterforce to their ambitions, their dreams, and their basic well-being. By inscribing the action over a large span of time, and by specifying matters of public policy that play a role in the drama, Rockwell (who both wrote and directed the film) simultaneously looks deeply at her characters’ experiences and appropriately exalts them as figures in a panorama of history.

That’s the very essence of melodrama—casting everyday people as characters in tragedies—and it’s also the borderline comedy with which melodramas are tinged. It’s why viewers, when watching them, often laugh at times that seem inappropriate. But no one is likely to laugh during “A Thousand and One,” because Rockwell diagnostically reconfigures the very terms of melodrama—her characters’ hazardous adventures are inextricable from the world in which they live. Their tragic conflicts are inseparable from the overarching tragedies of American society—the cruel indifference and the deep-rooted callousness, hatred, and injustice that their institutions embody and their authorities enact. There’s no contradiction, absurdity, or disproportion in the characters’ desires and strivings, but only in the thickly hostile political environment that opposes and resists them, and that Rockwell reveals in action, as if in a cinematic X-ray.

The movie, which opens Friday in theatres, starts in 1994. The protagonist, Inez (Teyana Taylor), a twenty-two-year-old hairdresser, is released from Rikers Island after a year and a half of incarceration. She returns to her neighborhood in Brooklyn, where she finds Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), who is six, and who was taken from her amid her legal troubles and then put into foster care. Inez is energetic and resourceful; while housed in a shelter, she gets freelance work doing hair. Believing that Terry has been neglected and mistreated in foster care, she kidnaps him and takes him to Harlem. The kidnapping makes the news. Inez is in hiding with Terry, but, reunited with him, she is invigorated with a ferocious sense of purpose and pursues her goals of family life with sharp-minded practicality. She rents an apartment, she finds steady work, and, in order to enroll Terry in school without alerting the authorities to his whereabouts, she procures false papers for him (including a birth certificate and a Social Security card) under a different name.

When Inez reunites with her boyfriend, Lucky (William Catlett), he resents Terry’s presence. Lucky, too, is formerly incarcerated and recently released, and he didn’t bargain for the risk that Inez is willing to take. But, when they marry, he takes his paternal role seriously and devotedly. By 2001, Terry, at thirteen (played by Aven Courtney), is academically successful and counselled to take the citywide test for specialized (i.e., highly selective) public high schools. Inez has been raising him strictly; Lucky senses how to talk to him man-to-man, to build character by instilling a sense of freedom. By age seventeen, Terry (played by Josiah Cross) is preparing for college, but the household is enduring overwhelming pressure from many directions, including from within. Unresolved traumas play out consequentially; heavy-handed policing creates a sense of fear; the accumulated burdens of poverty involve medical issues; the rapid and unchecked gentrification of Harlem threatens the roof over the family’s head; and the secrets and evasions of the distant past emerge with potentially devastating results.

Throughout, Rockwell brings to the fore the media hum of politics, the electoral results and the matters of law that give rise to Inez’s daily difficulties, starting with the matter-of-fact separation of families by way of the foster-care system and the enduring, multigenerational miseries that such cavalier interventions inflict on parents and children alike. The Giuliani administration’s so-called cleanup of the city unleashes an ambient authoritarianism that criminalizes poverty, treats Black residents like suspects-in-waiting for crimes to fit the arrest, and fabricates pretexts, excuses, and justifications for deadly police violence. The suburbanization of the city through a uniformly repressive order finds a gentler, cheerier, yet no less racially unjust, economically unfair, or relentlessly destructive market-based power in the Bloomberg years.

From the moment of Inez’s release, she has to fight against absurdly difficult circumstances, and it becomes clear that she has been doing so her entire life. Her furious determination to forge and sustain a family life and a sheltering household, of the sort that she’d been denied as a child, spurs her pugnacity, whether in her urgent efforts to find a place to live, her discipline of Terry, her expectations of Lucky, or her actions to keep Terry from returning to the foster-care system. Taylor’s incarnation of Inez’s concentrated passion is awe-inspiring; the actress ardently expresses how frustration, desperation, and fierce maternal love can be channelled into constructive action. Whether in managing a marital argument to maintain both her dignity and her authority, in the careful attention to the gracious details of home life, or in making grand gauntlet-throwing decisions with life-changing consequences, Inez has a focussed fury in the face of a world of irrational hostility dressed up as order. (With her gestures and inflections, Taylor endows even seemingly ordinary interactions with the overwhelming heat of fiercely principled and protective energy.)

The large-scale performances, along with the scope of the visual compositions (the cinematography is by Eric Yue) and even the span of the settings and the locations, seem to place the movie’s action on a city-size stage and to bring the surrounding bustle and clamor into every frame. The script builds the drama incrementally: sharp scenes reveal character in depth by way of critical situations of daily life, ones that echo with the historical burden and stifled pain of the city’s Black communities. “A Thousand and One” gives voice to the hidden struggles of Black women, as in one powerful sequence in which Inez meets a potential landlord (Adriane Lenox) who is confronting her own grief over her adult daughter’s sufferings as she raises her grandson, who’s about Terry’s age. Lucky has several dramatically nuanced, emotionally intense scenes, performed by Catlett with hearty grace and wounded grandeur, centered on the manhood of men who were born stigmatized. (Oddly, it’s only the teen-age Terry whose character is underdeveloped—he’s assigned traits but gets little subjectivity.)

Rockwell’s vigorous detailing of personal life—with its evocation of inner lives—is at the heart of its political vision and of its dramatic strength. It’s why the epic mode of the movie’s melodrama averts the genre’s habitually jarring contrasts between the characters’ everyday circumstances and the loftiness of their struggles. The movie’s fundamental concept is that, under such pressures as its characters confront, there’s no such thing as ordinary life—or, rather, that creating and sustaining ordinary life requires heroism of a sort that goes all too often unrecognized, and that, here, takes its place in history.