‘A Thousand and One’ Proves Teyana Taylor Is a Bona Fide Movie Star
There are eight million stories in the naked city — the saga of Inez de la Paz is just one of them.
A Thousand and One wants you to pay attention to this particular tale, however, and to give her experience its due. This woman could be anybody. But as A.V. Rockwell’s movie insistently reminds you, she is somebody. Attention deserves to be paid. It’s 1994, and Inez (Teyana Taylor) has just finished a bid at Rikers Island. She’s returned to Brooklyn, with the idea of either getting her old job as a hairdresser back or starting up her own salon. It’s not going to be easy. Inez can handle herself, though. Times are tough. So is she.
Except there’s this young boy, hanging out with the other kids in the neighborhood, slurping away on an ICEE in front of the bodega across the street. His name is Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola). He’s a quiet kid, the sort of shy, sensitive child who looks like he could go days without saying a word. Inez knows him. He seems to know her. “Why’d you leave me on the corner?” he asks, his wide eyes staring up at her. She says she didn’t leave him; she just had to go away for a bit. Things are being left unsaid. Then again, so much of this drama about interrupted lives, unexpected detours, and attempts at (re)connection requires a deep reading between the lines. That’s a big part of its power.
Later, when Terry injures his head while trying to escape from his foster home, Inez visits him in the hospital. When the two of them are alone, she wonders if he might want to come live with her. He whispers “yes.” They head up to Harlem, where Inez used to live. A friend (Terri Abney) takes them in. When news of a young boy being abducted from Brooklyn starts to make the rounds on the news, Inez squirrels the boy away in a rented room and gets him some fake papers. From now on, he’s “Daryl.” And then a mother and her son go out into a New York that’s about to go through yet another series of social upheavals.
A Thousand and One will follow this duo for a little over a decade, mapping out their journey through bad times and slightly better times. They get their own apartment. Inez’s old flame, an ex-con named Lucky (William Catlett), re-enters the picture and moves in with them. He radiates machismo and thus, seems like trouble for Terry; we eventually see him turn into a tender father figure and a flawed but compassionate role model for the kid. (The way that A Thousand and One consistently swerves into less absolutist, more emotionally complicated territory without sacrificing the joy or pain of these characters is what sets this movie apart from a thousand other similar stories.) The years go by. The youngster turns into a still sensitive yet slightly jaded teen (Aven Courtney) and then a pent-up, angry young man (Josiah Cross). He’s also singled out as a smart, gifted student, which could open up opportunities for him. The thing about the past, though, is that it never really goes away.
There’s a third-act curveball on the horizon, which Rockwell throws like a pro yet still leaves viewers on one side or the other in terms of acceptance — you either buy it or you don’t. What’s never in doubt, however, is that this first-time feature filmmaker knows how to involve you deeply in where life takes these two and invoke the bigger world that affects them in direct and indirect ways. It’s not a coincidence that the movie starts in the era of Mayor Giuliani and “broken windows” policing, or that ghost notes of mass incarceration, the foster-care system, and gentrification can be heard resonating deep within the movie’s narrative melodies. It touches on universal notions of late-’90s/early-2000s elements of social inequity, but it’s also an extremely New York story, filled with city-symphony scenes set to Gary Gunn’s jazzy, homage-to-Quincy-Jones score. (His Q-ness gets namechecked more than once here.) It’s why a wordless shot that slo-mo’s past Old Navy and Chuck E. Cheese logos hovering next to smaller storefronts speaks volumes, and why a random “stop-and-frisk” encounter doesn’t feel dated.
And for those who know Taylor primarily as a singer-dancer, A Thousand and One doubles as a re-introduction. Entering the film via a low-angle shot that makes her seem both larger than life and dwarfed by her surroundings, her Inez is initially all steel backbone and scowls. There’s a defensiveness and a mother-lion fierceness to her, as she fights to get shelter and stability in a volatile situation. Yet she seems to soften even as time and circumstances, not to mention setbacks, harden her resolve. That’s Taylor’s doing. Ditto the readings of lines that might have seemed like platitudes on the page but get laced with desperation, sorrow, and years of hard-won victory in her hands. The way she tells Terry to “get a plate” for a former romantic rival of hers during a funeral could be a short story unto itself.
Both Catlett and all three of the actors playing Terry back her up while getting their stand-out moments — Cross is especially good, showing us a young adult that bounces between stammering and overwhelmed and the human equivalent of a balled fist — and everyone from the cast helps prop up the human element even when the social-issues aspects start to tiptoe toward the didactic. It will surprise no one to hear that this intimate, character-based drama with an eye toward taking an era of entrenched marginalization to task won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Yet it’s not an easy movie to summarize or reduce to political point-scoring soundbites. A Thousand and One suggests that the accounts of struggle, sacrifice and systematic obstacles are legion. Yet you don’t have to view them cumulatively to realize that every single one of these lives matter and every single one of these stories count.
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