A Thousand and One
Sight Unseen Pictures, 2023
A. V. Rockwell
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Movies and TV shows with heavy subjects
Thought-provoking movies and TV shows
The adage says that before judging a person, you have to walk a mile in their shoes. A cliché no doubt, but it nonetheless rings true and certainly applies to this story of a woman willing to risk it all for the chance to raise her child on her own terms. Starring Teyana Taylor (Coming to America 2) as Inez de la Paz, A Thousand and One spans an 11-year period in New York City beginning in the mid-1990s, when a racially segregated Harlem consisted of tenement housing and densely populated communities of people struggling to get by. Setting the social climate of the period is audio of speeches from then-Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg promising to enhance the city’s landscape and stamp out crime (despite violating the civil rights of people to do so).
After being released from a short jail term, Inez abducts her 6-year-old son, Terry, from foster care, determined to raise him on her own. A former foster child herself, she struggles to do this. Friends can only offer minimal help, styling hair for the occasional client yields little income, and the closest job she can find is a two-hour subway ride away. At times forced to leave her child home alone while she works, Inez eventually obtains the documents needed to get him into school. When Terry arrives home one day, he finds a man in the apartment with his mom. Inez introduces him as “Lucky” and happily informs the child, “He’ll be moving in with us.” Lucky, though, seems to want nothing to do with the quiet, unassuming 7-year-old, played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola (Rise, The Tramps New World).
Too often, stories with Black characters fall on long-held stereotypes. I like this story precisely because it does not. For example, Black men are often depicted as unavailable to their children physically and emotionally. While initially aloof about connecting with Terry, Lucky, played by William Catlett (The Devil You Know, The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray), does eventually commit to being a father to the child and develops a close bond with him. This is especially remarkable given that Lucky was recently released from prison. Typically viewed and treated as lost causes, people who experience incarceration are often depicted as being drawn to trouble and having constant run-ins with the law. This story avoids perpetuating these cinematic tropes.
Similarly, as the positive narratives surrounding African American boys are scarce, Terry, even as a teenager, is neither depicted as a troubled child at home or in school, nor a child who gets into trouble with the law. Rather, he is quiet, thoughtful and introspective, wondering for example why he should have to leave his community in order to get “a good education.” Terry’s character challenges the widely-held views of Black boys as problems and up to no good, despite occasions in the film where police throw Terry up against a wall and frisk him without cause.
Regarding stereotypes about Black women, Inez’s character could have been written as a terrible mother. Instead, Inez spends time with her son and helps him understand that while things are difficult now, they will not always be this way. She meets with teachers at his school to understand the educational plans they have for her son and what it could mean for him. She resists reacting to a back-handed compliment by a White teacher, even though it is clear it took a lot for her to hold back. Had she not, the “angry Black woman” stereotype would have left its indelible mark on the audience.
Inez’s refusal to react can be viewed as purposefully resisting stereotypes. She realizes that the cost of reacting means perpetuating negative ideas about Black women. So instead she chooses, then, to reserve her strength for the bigger battles she fights every day, which include protecting and caring for the two Black men in her life. The stress of this emotional work is taxing, however, as it suggests a never-ending level of vigilance. She alludes to her wear and tear at several points throughout the film, stating, “What about me? Who takes care of me?” An abundance of research exists on how African American women in particular, expend so much time and energy protecting and looking out for their loved ones that little time is left for themselves, and they often feel tired and neglected.
While this movie has a small hint of the 2006 film, The Pursuit of Happyness, its feel is more reminiscent of the HBO series, The Deuce, which is set in roughly the same period and coincidentally the same city. Both make use of the dark cinematography of the day and just as with The Deuce, which ran from 2017-2019, the lives of people in A Thousand and One were affected by politically-motivated initiatives that directly impacted their lives. Also, the sight of Inez inserting coin after coin into telephone booths, affixed just outside of subway entrances and throughout the neighborhood, pulled me into the era that predated today’s technology. Even the use of the big, printed phone books surfaced long-buried memories of how tedious everyday tasks used to be. Anyone doubting the convenience (or annoyance) of cellphones and computers is likely to think again after seeing this film.
While A Thousand and One challenges prevailing stereotypes, it ensures the pendulum does not swing too far in the direction of depicting the characters as infallible. Inez and Lucky are indeed flawed characters in the film - both do scandalous things. After all, Inez did kidnap Terry. It leaves the question though: To what degree can the characters’ behaviors be explained by flaws in their personalities or their past (and present) hardships and life experiences? This is always difficult to discern. But a poignant moment in the film gives some insight into this when Lucky asks Inez why she loves him. Initially dismissing him, he insists on an answer. She slowly responds, “Damaged people don’t know how to love one another.”
This was an emotionally moving film that also moved the story along, letting the audience inside Inez’s life, creating the space for empathy. This full 360 degrees was needed for the audience to appreciate her depth of character, her shortcomings, and conveyance of a story that can be generalized to women like her in major cities across the United States. In addition to kudos to writer/director A. V. Rockwell on this piece, newcomer Teyana Taylor should receive major award nods for her strong delivery of Inez de la Paz in this film. We look forward to seeing more of her and Rockwell’s work.