At one point in Terry's childhood, Inez gets married to her longtime sweetheart Lucky (Will Catlett). During their wedding, Lucky kneels down to Terry to let him know "I'm not going anywhere." Of course, things become much more complicated than that. Nothing sticks around forever. The passage of time comes for all of us. Rich, poor, kings and paupers...we're all living at the mercy of finite existence. Rockwell's filmmaking unearths inspired ways to reinforce the passing of years and specifically what's so tragic about what happened to Harlem across the 1990s and 2000s. Long-standing apartment buildings transform into sleek-looking shopping centers adorned with the logos of recognizable companies.
It's one thing for the passage of time to result in green leaves turning brown in the autumn. But this visual transformation is something much more intentional and sinister. A Thousand and One poignantly depicts how gentrification intentionally ripped away entire communities and much-needed homes. It's a process that targeted people of color and reinforces the daunting circumstances Inez and Terry are navigating every day. The Harlem we see at the start of A Thousand and One is not the same one we see in the film's final scene. This portion of upper Manhattan is being chipped away and Rockwell's filmmaking lingers on every lived-in patch of this neighborhood to emphasize what's being lost in the process of gentrification. This is not a movie lingering on the woes of what's been lost, but also a subtle celebration of what was and still is. The approach to Harlem within A Thousand and One functions as a way to generate conflict for the main characters, inform the deeply textured camerawork, and provide social commentary. What an incredible multi-faceted aspect of this feature.
A Thousand and One tends to operate like that, with Rockwell's script often juggling so many plates but doing so with such grace and subtlety that you won't even notice. What keeps things so engaging is the character work, with this movie doing such commendable work framing Terry and especially Inez as deeply complicated human beings. Mothers don't often get to be dimensional creatures in cinema narratives. Normally they're just around to be supporting players with the stories of younger characters. Inez is a welcome departure from that norm. She's incredibly messy and someone you sometimes despise. But she's also a deeply troubled human being who can elicit sympathy from the audience moments after potentially alienating moviegoers. All those rough edges make Inez such a believable human being from the get-go. The thoughtfully gradual and small ways she evolves over the years make accentuate the veracity of this figure.
Such characters are brought to life with deftness by A Thousand and One's central cast. Teyana Taylor, in her biggest lead role to date, proves she's more than up for the challenge of simultaneously anchoring an entire motion picture and inhabiting such a complicated character. She's mesmerizing here, particularly in the ways she depicts Inez changing over time but also displaying subtle physical details that remain consistent. Taylor's got the tiniest intricacies down pat with Inez and it's remarkable to watch. Even considering this towering lead performance, though, Josiah Cross may be the standout of A Thousand and One's cast. Tasked with the most emotionally overt moments of the entire movie, Cross doesn't succumb to just going brash. There's restraint in even his most pronounced depictions of Terry navigating challenging emotional situations. His tears ring true and fit right into the naturalistic aesthetic of the rest of the movie.
With such gripping performance and assured filmmaking, I could've just watched Inez and Terry navigate everyday life for hours on end. It doesn't hurt that there's such a quietly loving quality to the way A.V. Rockwell frames the various apartments and streets of Harlem. Their imperfections are on-screen, but that's also what makes them feel cozy and rooted in reality. A Thousand and One is often transportive in the visuals it uses to depict a mother and her son navigating issues both massively systemic and intimately crushing. It's a story that stretches over a decade yet manages to feel like it's always living in the moment. Combining that narrative feat with the rich visuals of A Thousand and One makes this A.V. Rockwell feature one of the easiest movies to recommend so far in 2023.