A Thousand and One

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Films that watch poor people having a bad time aren’t everyone’s idea of fun and while A Thousand and One walks a familiar path, it does so with a keen knowledge that misery is a turn-off, and even throws in some firecracker performances to help sweeten the pill.

Chief among those is Teyana Taylor, in a star-is-born role as Inez, a street skank fresh out of Rikers Island who “kidnaps” her own child, Terry, aged six and in care, and sets out to bring him up while ducking the authorities.

Will Inez make it? Will Terry?

Starting out in 1994, the story of Inez and Terry is also, to an extent the story of New York as it shakes itself free of former woes. Mayor Rudy Giuliani hovers in the background – on TV and radio news bulletins – instigating the zero-tolerance policies that (debatably) brought about the renaissance of New York and ushered in the era of gentrification and urban hipsters.

Writer/director AV Rockwell has no particular beef with Giuliani, or if she has she’s not having that fight here, beyond pointing out that “zero tolerance” meant a massively reduced tolerance of “ethnic minority” populations – stop and search being the bane of young black kids like Terry, now renamed Darryl. As for gentrification, it’s all well and good for the city but for people like Inez, who have been living in brownstones that are now suddenly desirable residences, the arrival of white people in Harlem means the end of all that.

Inez comforts Terry
Mother love: Inez and Terry

The story is largely seen though Terry/Darryl’s eyes, as he leaps from being a sweet if quiet six-year-old kid, to an antsy 13-year-old on the edge of falling in with the wrong crowd, to the 17-year-old gifted teenager being lined up for a golden future at one of the good colleges.

Josiah Cross (Terry aged 17) and Aven Courtney (13) are both fine as the teenager but Aaron Kingsley Adetola stands out, as the six-year-old version of Terry, somehow doing things six-year-olds generally can’t do. This is a great performance of real range and emtionality and the screen dims a touch when it’s time for Adetola to pass the baton on to the other two.

Along the way we are also introduced to Lucky (William Catlett), Inez’s guy but not Terry’s father. Rockwell’s script asks the same question of Lucky as it asks of Inez and Terry – how much of a cliché does this guy want to be? Is he going to be the absent black father figure with a wandering eye who lives entirely in the present? Or a decent dad and loving husband building a future with a family? This is a story about the gravity of circumstance and upbringing pulling people one way, while aspiration pulls them the other. Old New York versus new New York.

This is where Taylor in particular excels. The internal tussle is written all over her. She’s being pulled in different directions. In one standout sequence Inez eats pot noodles, watches TV, cries and laughs all at the same time while Rockwell’s camera is right up in her face. Taylor also gives us a nuanced Inez over time, becoming more mature and measured but with the street fire still burning below.

It won’t be everyone’s sort of thing. It isn’t mine, to be honest. A low pain threshold is a problem and there is plenty of misery on offer here, especially towards the end, when the hand-wringing and heart-to-hearts really start to dominate. But it is a good film. Well made, nicely shot, superbly acted and with a couple of bombshell plot developments thrown in to liven things up just as things start getting too familiar. And, perhaps best of all, A Thousand and One knows there are melodramatic traps out there and then forges ahead nimbly dodging them all.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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