Engaging saga of being black in NYC in the mid-nineties to mid-2000's

A Thousand and One tells the story of the feisty, unbridled Inez and her son Terry in the rapidly changing New York and increasingly gentrified Harlem from 1994 to 2005. Released from a year at Riker's prison, she kidnaps the boy at age six from a foster home to save him from what she went through as a child - the wrong thing for the right reasons. She gets him fake papers for school, which has consequences down the road. Her"man" Lucky gets out of prison and joins them, trying to be a father to Terry. In seeking to be a political and sociological (and real estate) drama as well as a personal saga, in this turbulent feature debut A.V.Rockwell attempts to do a little too much. The screenplay falters and rambles a bit in the second half (not so in the first). But it's almost wholly absorbing and eye-opening. It shows with identifiable vividness what it's like to be black and poor in that decade of burgeoning New York. It's held together by the deeply committed performances, most of all the fiery, jaw-dropping acting debut of singer, dancer and choreographer Triana Taylor as Inez. William Catlett is solid and believable as Lucky, and Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, and Josiah Cross are excellent and relatable as Terry at ages 6, 13, and 17, respectively. This movie arouses mixed feelings, but you want to tell people about it. It's news. And it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Sundance Festival.

Taylor's Inez has an energy and defiance that are violent. The little Terry is silent and inward, reflecting the trials he has already been through. He is cautious. He is also intelligent. In school he does well. You feel that he is hyper-aware of everything, including Inez' misbehavior, her mistakes, and her passion. Much of the best moments are Terry-watching. The film leads you into involvement through thinking and feeling with him in this vibrant, uncontrollable and rapidly changing world he's negotiating.

Another star of the film is the city of New York in a time of rapid, and for the poor devastating, gentrification. The cinematography includes frequent interludes of skyline and Harlem buildings, and voices signaling the changing regimes of Mayor Giuliani followed by Mayor Bloomberg. Down on the street Inex works as a hairdresser: she is first seen even plying her trade in Riker's. But to make money she must go on a long subway ride to Queens to work as a cleaner. The most terrifying passage is the period when a new white landlord takes over the Harlem building where Inez and the 17-year old Terry are living and appears friendly and ready to fix everything at first. Instead his "super" and his men tear the place apart so it's unlivable, making way for high-paying white tenants. At the same time Terry is, maybe, ready for college but his false papers are found out and his school guidance counselor-teacher, like the new "friendly" landlord, turns out to be a dangerous betrayal. Their world is crashing down.

One of the most touching elements of the film, for me, is Lucky. In William Catlett's strong, silent performance he is initially opaque and stolid, but slowly he opens toward Terry, who isn't his son and he at first rejects. Lucky becomes more and more a support for Terry and recognizes that Inez's shouting isn't the best way to overcome the youth's reservations and confusion about moving away to a good school and college and pursuing the better future of which he's capable, but may feel unworthy of. Yet Lucky recognizes the essentially impossible thing he and Inez are trying to do when, in a tender moment, he humorously asks, "What do two criminals know about raising a family?" Things end up in the air after 117 minutes: "happy endings" wouldn't be appropriate in this turbulent and very difficult world.

Rockwell doesn't altogether manage juggling the personal and public sides of her story. There is no mention of 9/11, signaling how the major local news slips by at times unnoticed. But the movie's greatest fault is that it bogs down somewhat in the second half; the way the momentum slows to a near-halt at moments. There is a sense of relentless melodrama to which Taylor's unbridled performance contributes: there are times in the second half when it needed to be toned down. Nonetheless, this is a vibrant and memorable piece of work with performances that really shine, fine work by Eric K. Yue on the cinematography and an understated but soaring score by Gary Gunn. Watch for this one: it's special.

A Thousand and One, 117 mins., debuted at Sundance. It opened in the US (NYC) and Canada March 31, 2023. Metacritic rating 81%.