A Thousand and One
AV Rockwell’s debut feature may be yet another deep dive into the racial exploitation of America’s inner cities (Harlem, in the case of A Thousand And One), but even in the depths of its social and political leanings, it deploys a laser-sharp focus on the keystone of any successful drama: its characters.
“I’ll go to war for you, you know that? Against this whole city!” It’s a simple line spoken by Teyana Taylor’s Inez De La Paz to her six-year-old son, Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), but one which succinctly penetrates the nucleus of this richly realised story of motherhood and the social conditions which inflect its practise. After finishing a spell at Rikers Island Prison, Inez runs into her six-year-old son. Not wanting to lose him for a second time, Inez decides to kidnap Terry from his care facility, and with the help of her established support network in Harlem, tries to build for them both a sense of familial identity and independence from the ground up.
A city-wide police hunt is triggered for Inez and Terry, leading the boy to be kept out of the public’s sight to the best of his mother’s ability. Both mother and son soon realise, however, that the state’s priorities lie elsewhere besides young black boys missing from the foster care system. “Why is no one looking for me?”, Terry asks in a heart-rending moment of perception well beyond the boy’s years. Inez brings her long-time on-and-off partner Lucky (William Catlett) into the fold to bolster her effort to build the nuclear unit that neither of them enjoyed at Terry’s age. “What do two criminals know about raising a family?” Lucky rhetorically, and oddly soothingly, asks Inez in a tender moment.
The narrative unfolds in chapters, akin to the narrative structure of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, each of which age our characters by seven and then four years (Terry is played by Aven Courtney as a 13-year-old, and Josiah Cross as a 17-year-old in an exceptionally vulnerable, scene-stealing performance). He develops an enthusiasm for music, incited by a hand-me-down of Lucky’s cassette collection, which in turn develops his interest in film composition as a possible career. It’s an appropriate point of character development, drawing attention to Gary Gunn’s richly arranged, jazz-inflected score, which plays such a pivotal role in maintaining the transcendentalism of a tale which may have otherwise descended into an overly nihilistic account of social and economic abuse.
These themes are certainly central to the story, and are deeply intertwined with our characters’ fates (an unscrupulous landlord surreptitiously tries to force Inez and Terry out of their apartment, while the whole thing plays out against the backdrop of Rudy Guiliani’s Mayorship of New York, with promises to come down hard on unruly jaywalkers ominously echoing through the city’s radios), but they play second fiddle to the people who inhabit this world. Rockwell fosters a warm, understated, celebratory tone which pays homage to black families, to community and to the merits of stoic resolution. She executes it in a manner, which means that, even when the screenplay reels into somewhat melodramatic territory, it never intrudes on our character’s arcs, allowing Gunn’s score to serenade us towards a conclusion brimming with cautious hope.
A Thousand and One is released nationwide on 21st April 2023.
Watch the trailer for A Thousand and One here: