— Reviewed by Valarie Edwards
A Thousand and One stars Teyana Taylor, Will Catlett, Josiah Cross, Aven Courtney and Aaron Kingsley Adetola. The film premiered on January 22, 2023 at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, and won the Grand Jury Prize. It was released March 31, 2023, by Focus Features.
Against the backdrop of New York City circa 1994, A Thousand and One is a gritty tale of one mother raging against the foster care system.
The film opens inside the city’s infamous Rikers Island jail as Inez de la Paz, played by (the gorgeous and talented!) Teyana Taylor, prepares to leave following a year-long stint for shoplifting.
Shortly after her release, Inez spots her son, Terry, hanging with friends and eating a popsicle. It’s not the first time mother and son have been separated and it’s not the first time Terry has been in foster care. “Why you always leaving me?,” asks the 6-year old, played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola.
When Inez learns Terry is hospitalized trying to escape his foster mother’s anger, she visits and decides to kidnap her son believing he’s better off with her than he is in the system.
We soon learn Inez was also in foster care and has no contact with her biological family. It explains her fierce determination to keep Terry by her side, no matter the cost.
It’s a tough road ahead for de la Paz, as she hustles to earn money as a hairdresser, dodge police and child welfare authorities, and find an affordable apartment. When couch surfing doesn’t pan out, Inez takes a job as a housekeeper at a nursing home, earning enough to rent a walk-up apartment in Harlem.
As A Thousand and One evolves, life for Inez and Terry evolves as well. Inez’ long-term boyfriend — Lucky — gets out of jail and the two get married. And when Terry’s academic excellence sets him apart from friends, teachers encourage him to consider M.I.T. or Harvard. He also experiences his first love.
Harlem is evolving too, as gentrification pushes black and brown families out of the city. Inez’ white landlord never delivers on his promise fix her apartment, instead rendering it uninhabitable in an attempt to force her out of a neighborhood that’s been home to the working poor for decades.
And, when Lucky develops lung cancer, Inez invites Lucky’s girlfriend and young daughter to his end-of-life celebration. After all, Inez tells Terry, they are family too.
As Terry prepares to leave for college, some hidden truths come to light which once again force Inez and Terry apart. It’s a truth that strikes at the heart of what parents will do to keep their children close.
There is a realism to Rockwell’s film that comes through to anyone familiar with the flavor of New York City in summer.
It’s a never-ending cacophony of sounds: dueling accents, drivers leaning in on their horns, and everyone shouting to be heard over the din that marks city life. It reminds me a lot of the neighborhood I lived in as a teen.
A Thousand and One is a reminder that family isn’t always the people we’re born to. It’s also about the lengths we’ll go to hold on to one another, and the things that can tear us apart if we’re not careful.