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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tales of the big city: ‘A Thousand and One’

Dan Webster

Above: Teyana Taylor stars in "A Thousand and One." (Photo/Focus Features)

Movie review: "A Thousand and One," written and directed by A.V. Rockwell, starring Teyana Taylor, Josiah Cross, William Catlett, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney. Streaming on several services.

One of the aims of art is – or should be – to acquaint us with a perception of the world that we might otherwise find foreign. Or in any event unfamiliar.

If, for example, you can’t discern any actual meaning in the paintings that Jackson Pollock dripped onto his many canvases, maybe looking at them will at least open you to the notion that there are more ways than one to express a sense of what constitutes reality. And if Pollock doesn’t work for you, then think of Picasso. Or in a literary sense, the stories of Virginia Woolf. Or in a cinematic sense, the films of Jean-Luc Godard.

Not that A.V. Rockwell deserves to be counted among such artistic legends. Not yet, anyway, since she’s written and directed merely a single feature film. But that film, the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner “A Thousand and One,” does focus on a world – the streets of late 20th-century New York – and the life of a woman – a Black hair stylist struggling to overcome specific kinds of big-city hardships – that most mainstream moviegoers are likely to find somewhat foreign. Or at least unfamiliar.

“A Thousand and One” introduces us to Inez (played by Teyana Taylor), a woman fresh out of jail whose first concern is to figure out how to support herself. Inez, though, is a survivor, so it’s clear that she’s going to get by. It might not be easy, it might even be painful, but Inez will find a way.

Then one day she sees her 6-year-old, Terry, and her life takes a turn. Terry (played at that age by Aaron Kingsley Adetola) was taken from her when she was incarcerated and put in the foster-care system. It takes time for the two to reconnect, because Terry – she calls him T – understandably has trust issues.

But Inez is persistent. And concerned, especially when she sees a contusion on the boy’s head. So, one day she just takes him and flees to Harlem, intent on establishing a sense of family that she herself never had. Though at first worried that the authorities will pursue her, Inez gradually realizes that her fears are unfounded: This is the mid-1990s, New York is changing on what seems to be a daily basis and one more Black child getting lost in the system isn’t going to set off alarms – at least not in the short term.

The long term will present a different set of problems, especially for Terry. But Inez, like many people existing on the margins of society, faces day-to-day needs: finding a place for her and Terry to stay, finding food for them to eat, and finding enough money to obtain both.

Throughout, Inez is a loving-yet-stern presence, even in those moments when she loses her patience both with Terry (played by Aven Courtney as a 13-year-old, Josiah Cross as a 17-year-old) and with the man who comes into their life, Lucky (played by William Catlett).

New York, too, exists as a character unto itself. The makeover the city undergoes, under policies put forth by mayors such as Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, have a direct effect on Inez and Terry, just as they did in real life on thousands of New Yorkers. In one telling scene, a building owner – seemingly friendly at first – attempts, ham-handedly, to force them out of their apartment.

It's not as if Rockwell is making a blatantly political film. But as the late, great film critic Manny Farber used to say, everything is political. So, while Rockwell keeps Inez, Terry and – when he’s around – Lucky, squarely in the center of every scene, the city is always there, a source of opportunity for some, an obstacle to overcome for many others.

Give Rockwell credit for this, too: She’s not afraid to give her film an ending that is as ambiguous as it is open-ended. One door does seem to open for Terry, but it does so conditionally – with he, a bright kid with an equally bright future, having to face the consequences of the right-minded if wrong-headed decision that Inez had made all those years before.

The final image, then, is almost ironic – as if Inez, having done what she could, as well as she could, seems to be saying, “It’s all up to you now, T.”

To which I would add, “Save up your money for some therapy sessions, kid.”