January 27, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by A.V. Rockwell
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, from 1993 to 2005, the dramatic film “A Thousand and One” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: After she is released from prison for theft, a New York City mother illegally avoids child welfare services that want to put her underage son in foster care, so she moves to another part of the city with him and gives him a false identity.
Culture Audience: “A Thousand and One” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching intense dramas about troubled families that are plagued by poverty and dysfunction.
“A Thousand and One” could be an apt description about all the storylines in movies and TV shows about African American pain and struggles. What makes this dramatic film different from the many that just wallow in negative stereotypes is how authentically the complex humanity is presented in the story. The well-worn subject of an African American family living in urban poverty gets a rarely seen perspective of an undocumented U.S.-born child living in America. The middle of the movie tends to drag, but the last third of the film is emotionally powerful.
Written and directed by A.V. Rockwell, “A Thousand and One” won the grand jury prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere. “A Thousand and One”—which takes place in New York City, from 1993 to 2005—follows the lives of two people who are on the margins of society because one of them is a child with a false identity. “A Thousand and One” shows how this identity deception was made with good intentions to benefit the child in a system that often neflects or abuses children with unstable home lives. “A Thousand and One” shows in unflinching ways whether or not this decision to change the child’s identity was the right decision.
“A Thousand to One” begins by showing the woman who is the catalyst for most of what happens in the story. Inez de la Paz (played by Teyana Taylor) is a prisoner at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in 1993. The opening scene shows Inez appying makeup on the face of a female inmate. The movie then abruptly cuts to 1994, when Inez is 22 years old. Inez, who has a feisty and outspoken personality, is now out of prison and trying to get her life back on track.
Inez returns to her Brooklyn neighborhood and reconnects with a shy and quiet 6-year-old boy named Terry (played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola), who knows Inez as his mother, but he seems emotionally distant and very mistrustful of her. Terry refuses to talk to Inez and can barely look at her. That’s because for however long that Inez was in prison, Terry has been living in foster care, and he feels like Inez abandoned him.
Terry’s father has not be involved in raising Terry, who has no other known relatives. Inez has told people that her ex-boyfriend Lucky (played by William Catlett) is Terry’s father, but Inez says that Lucky and Inez broke up shortly after she gave birth to Terry. For now, Inez plans to raise Terry on her own. But because she currently has no job and no permanent home, it’s very unlikely that Inez will get custody of Terry.
Inez insists on spending time with Terry, whom she usually gets to see when he’s hanging out with his friends on the streets. She promises Terry that she will stay out of trouble and that she won’t ever leave him again. Eventually, Terry starts to warm up to Inez and begins to trust her again.
Meanwhile, Inez wants to work as a hairstylist, but her criminal record and not having a permanent address make it hard for her to get hired at places that do background checks. She also has a reputation in her neighborhood for being a convicted thief. In an effort to find work, she hands out flyers to advertise her services as an independent hair stylist.
A montage early in the movie shows Inez calling people she knows to find a place to stay, and she gets frustrated when people say no, or she can’t reach them on the phone because she gets voice mail or the phone number is no longer in service. Remember, this is in 1994, when most people did not have mobile phones, so Inez has to rely on pay phones to make her calls. Because Inez doesn’t have her own phone, it’s another reason why it’s hard for her to find a job.
Just as Inez thinks she’s making progress with Terry, he ends up in a hospital with a non-critical head injury from a fall out of a window. Although Terry says that he fell on his own, it’s implied that it’s very likely his foster mother abused him, and it resulted in the injury. One of the signs that Terry is being abused in his foster home is that he is afraid to go back and live there. Another sign is that Inez is told that Terry will probably be moved to another foster home after he’s discharged from the hospital.
Inez is so upset by the thought of Terry going back to a foster home, she asks Terry if he wants to stay with her for a couple of days. He says yes. That’s all Inez needs to hear to decide to take Terry with her without telling the proper authorities. Inez and Terry go to Harlem, where Inez grew up. They temporarily hide out with Inez’s close friend Kim Jones (played by Terri Abney), who has known Inez since childhood. Kim lives with her mother Mrs. Jones (played by Delissa Reynolds), who openly disapproves of Inez, because she thinks Inez is a bad influence on Kim.
Inez confides to Kim that Inez has illegally taken Terry and has no intention of returning him to the child welfare system. Inez makes Kim promise to keep it a secret. However, the local news is reporting that Inez has kidnapped Terry. Photos of Inez and Terry are on local TV stations and in other visual media’s news reports about this kidnapping. Even though the Internet was in its infancy in 1994, a kidnapping reported on the TV news would be a big deal in 1994, as it would be today. “A Thousand and One” doesn’t handle the effects of this mass-media coverage very realistically.
That’s why viewers need a huge suspension of disbelief for the rest of “A Thousand to One,” which shows that Terry and Inez stayed in Harlem through 2005, the year that the movie ends. This isn’t spoiler information, because the movie is being marketed as a story about a woman who kidnapped her son and was able to raise him through his teenage years by giving him a false identity. The movie’s remaining chapters take place in 2001, when Terry (played by Aven Courtney) is 13 years old, and in 2005, when Terry (played by Josiah Cross) is 17 years old.
It’s very hard to believe that people who know Inez (who makes no attempt to disguise herself) wouldn’t find out that she was in the news for kidnapping. It would be easier to believe that Inez got away with it for several years if Inez and Terry had moved to another part of the United States, or even out of the New York City metropolitan area. In real life, too many social workers and law enforcement officials (including parole officers) would be able to easily track down Inez and Terry because she went back to her childhood neighborhood.
And making things even more implausible, Inez and Terry stay in the same Harlem apartment for several years, which would make them even easier to find. (Most fugitives don’t live in one place for too long.) Inez and Terry live an apartment that has the number 10-01 on the door. This apartment number is the inspiration for the movie’s title, because without the hyphen, the number would be 1,001.
Terry is homeschooled for some of his early childhood when Inez goes into “hiding” with him, but Terry eventually goes to public schools, where Inez occasionally interacts with some of the schools’ faculty and staff. It’s another plot hole in the movie, because some of these school employees would realistically be aware of local child kidnappings that were in the news and would recognize Inez. It’s important to mention that Inez’s physical appearance barely ages in the movie. Through the years, her very distinctive face looks exactly the same in the photos of Inez that are shown in the news about the kidnapping case. Law enforcement wouldn’t have do any “aging updates” to her photos.
Inez and Terry being able to “hide in plain sight” and go undetected for years is this movie’s way of saying that children like Terry often “fall through the cracks” of the child welfare system, because no one is really looking that hard for them. A better and more realistic narrative to the story would have been that Terry’s disappearance would not have made the news at all. But because “A Thousand and One” repeatedly shows Inez’s and Terry’s photos on TV as a kidnapping case, this TV news coverage seems very contrived for the movie’s dramatic purposes, in order to make the character of Inez more paranoid about getting caught.
Despite the credibility flaws in this part of the kidnapping investigation narrative, “A Thousand and One” is more authentic in showing the turmoil and dysfunction that result from being an outlaw and having poverty problems. Yes, there are many cringeworthy scenes of Inez being the “angry black woman” stereotype, but Taylor delivers a good-enough performance that it doesn’t devolve into being a pathetic parody. Viewers will see more than enough of Inez’s “I’m angry because I’ve had a hard life” attitude.
However, “A Thousand and One” saves itself from being racially offensive with these negative stereotypes for Inez because the movie shows her vulnerable side, especially during Terry’s early teenage years when she starts to mellow out a little bit when the life that she makes for herself and Lucky becomes more stable. The movie also presents a variety of other African American people who are also living in poverty but who aren’t the clichés of being bitter and “ready to pick a fight” that Inez can often be. Inez’s friend Kim is street-smart too, but Kim is more compassionate and more patient than Inez.
Lucky comes back into Inez’s life, and he’s not quite the deadbeat dad that he could easily be if the movie followed the usual race-demeaning formulas that other movies and TV shows have about low-income African American fathers. Lucky is flawed but he does try to redeem himself as a parent. The scenes with Lucky and Terry are among the most authentic because they show that it takes time for Lucky to build trust as a father who was absent for Terry’s formative childhood years.
What will probably impress people the most about “A Thousand and One” is how superbly the movie shows Terry growing up into the bright and sensitive person that he is, with a lot of potential to succeed, despite Terry coming from dire circumstances and a volatile family background. Terry has a knack for science and technology. But what he really wants to do with his life is to be a music composer like his idol, Quincy Jones. Adetola, Courtney and Cross are all terrific in their roles as Terry in the three life stages that are depicted in “A Thousand and One.”
“A Thousand and One” has plenty of hard edges to its storytelling, but there are some sweet-natured scenes of teenage Terry awkwardly trying to impress his longtime crush Simone (played at age 14 by Azza El, and at age 17 by Alicia Pilgrim), who is dismissive and rude to Terry. As 17-year-old Terry, Cross is particularly skillful at showing introverted Terry’s frustration of wanting to be more confident, but his shyness and insecurity often get in the way. Terry has a slight stutter that is realistically depicted. There are also some tender mother/child moments between Inez and Terry.
“A Thousand and One” transitions between each of the three chapters of Terry’s life, by showing aerial views of New York City with audio clips of news reports about New York City’s mayor at the time. These transitions are an effective way to not only give a quick history lesson of New York City during these years but also put into context the types of mayoral policies that were put in place during these time periods. The news clips highlighted in the movie reflect the type of news that African Americans likely would be paying attention to the most because it’s news that would have an impact on African American communities.
For 1994 and 2001, these clips briefly encapsulate the reign of Rudolph “Rudy” Giuliani, who is credited with “cleaning up” New York City and reducing the city’s crime rate, but who also instilled a damaging and racist “stop and frisk” police policy that disproportionately targeted African Americans and Latinos of the male gender. These clips have mentions of the police brutality cases that violated young, unarmed African American men Abner Louima (a victim of police sodomy in 1997) and Amadou Diallo (killed by 41 rounds of police gunfire in 1999), to serve as reminders of the racial dangers in New York City for young African American men like Terry. The 2005 audio excerpt of the reign of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg foreshadows how certain people will be affected by Bloomberg’s legacy of bringing more big business and more gentrification to New York City.
Viewers of “A Thousand and One” will get the sense that all the problems experienced by Inez and Terry are not meant to invoke condescension or pity, as some of the move’s more privileged characters react when they’re with Inez and/or Terry. Instead, the movie shows in frank and empathetic ways how quickly people’s lives can spiral in these circumstances. It would be very easy to judge people in these circumstances as self-destructive or lazy. But the ending of “A Thousand and One” makes it very clear that it’s a mistake to harshly judge someone without knowing that person’s whole life story, because some of life’s bad decisions start off as good intentions.
Focus Features will release “A Thousand and One” in select U.S. cinemas on March 31, 2023.