dir: A.V. Rockwell
Life is hard, whether it’s today or 1994 New York, if you’re an ex-con. Especially if you’ve burned every bridge, and lost custody of your child, who ends up in the welfare – foster system.
A Thousand and One puts us in the unenviable position of watching a character who often does the worst possible thing in a given situation, and still hope that she’ll be able to find a way to get by and get through. It’s a hard balancing act, because she’s a complex character, and she is certain she’s doing the right thing, but most people who do stuff that turns out awful are certain they’re doing the right thing.
Inez (the formidable Teyana Taylor) is just out of Riker’s, and has nothing, and no place to stay. It’s the early 90s, so we have multiple scenes of her using a phonebook to try and call people that might still take her in for a while. At something called a “phone booth”, with that accordion glass door and all.
Drifting back to her Brooklyn neighbourhood, there are as many people who remember her skills with a hot comb, finger weaves and box braids, as remember her for whatever landed her in jail again.
She’s spying on someone in the neighbourhood that she’s likely enjoined by law not to approach, a little guy she calls T (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), for Terry. He can’t even make eye contact with her, but he knows who she is. Life in foster care doesn’t seem to be that enjoyable, which results in Terry spending some time in hospital, which gives mother and son more of a chance to bond, somehow, despite Terry’s constant fear that she’s going to disappear again.
Inez herself is a product of the foster system. I should just call it “The System”. Later on she’ll refer to it as being the reason why she is so hard, so uncompromising, so brittle and fierce.
The boy speaks of his earliest memory, of being abandoned by his mother on a street corner. Inez is stunned, and aflame from this, and embarks on a course of action as unwise as it is heartfelt.
Inez is not a Brooklyn native – she elects to take Terry back to where she’s really from, where she really grew up, being Harlem. The Brooklyn and Harlem of 1994 are not the Brooklyn and Harlem of today, needless to say. I say this not as a person with any actual experience of the places – but as someone who’s watched a lot of films, read a lot of books, and articles like in the New Yorker or countless other (legacy) magazines, talking about the Giuliani years, giving way to the Bloomberg years, the gentrification, the cleaning up of Times Square, the “stop and frisk” policy of NY police that seemed to mostly target, by some strange coincidence, African-American and Hispanic boys.
In case I haven’t made it clear, Inez effectively kidnaps Terry. It’s in the news, there’s reason to believe that both of them could be in trouble if it comes to light, so on top of the other difficulties of life in New York during a time of upheaval, and as an ex-con trying to raise a family as a single mother, there’s the additional threat of discovery.
It means you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. If they have to give a false name and social security number in order to get Terry, now Darryl, into school, then you know eventually someone’s going to figure something out.
It hangs over the film. In a different way, the date also hangs over the film. As the years lead up to 2001, I kept expecting some other grand occasion to impact upon the narrative, perhaps taking out some of the characters, but that would have unbalanced an already intense drama.
Before the move to Harlem, when staying with her only friend left, the tension between Inez and her friend’s mother causes her to do things and say things that, well, you’d be forgiven for thinking are at best counter-productive, but at worst stupid. Attacking the mother of the friend you’re staying with physically, even if she thinks you’re trash, even if she tells you you’re trash, when you’ve basically got nowhere else other than a car to stay, well, we still hope she’ll be able to figure it out.
The move to Harlem, to a tiny place, is no less easy. The landlord there is no less of a hardarse than her friend’s mother, but she at least understands how few chances an ex-con single mother has in New York. And she, too, is raising a grandson, with her daughter being caught on the hamster wheel of recovery and relapse.
She tells Inez of a job, a long commute away, as a cleaner, and, well, how many choices does she have? That leaves little Terry to while away the hours in front of a television, on a long summer’s day.
Much of the film transpires inside, inside that tiny apartment. There are hints and signs of what’s happening in the neighbourhood, but it’s rarely made as explicit as the stuff that happens later in the film, which I won’t spoil yet. The cinematography emphasises the claustrophobic nature of their lives, hemmed in on all sides by many forces not kind to them, and yet they persist.
The Terrys at various ages are played by a long line of different boy actors, and I’m not going to list them all, not out of any lack of respect for their abilities, but because they don’t make as much of an impression as Inez, or her former ex-con boyfriend and eventual husband Lucky (William Catlett).
Oh, Lucky. Would that he had a name that wasn’t so ironic. I feared his character was going to be the cliché brutish jailbird step-father trope, but thankfully his gruff exterior hides a soulful heart not completely damaged by his experiences. He warms to the Terrys, and seems to be a devoted partner to Inez as they try to reconstruct their lives post-incarceration, or at least try to build the best life possible for people with very limited opportunities.
But some traumas run too deep. And some limitations can’t be transcended.
Terry(s), we are told, is strong academically, and encouraged to go further, maybe get a scholarship to an even better school. Most of the Terrys, though, communicate little other than how sad they are, sad at the initial abandonment, sad about being left alone all those times, sad about not knowing his origins. It’s only the last Terry, at 17 (played by Josiah Cross), that gets to articulate that sadness verbally and that resentment towards Inez, at what’s been missing in his life because of her lies and because of how hard she made herself in order to get through their hardships.
It's a tough role for anyone to stand out in, especially since Inez and Lucky are such compelling, powerful characters, and the Terrys mostly do not. It's not what they do, because people don't get to do very much of anything on screen during this film: It’s what they say, and how forcefully they say it. Lucky has his own sorrow, but gives the unexpected love and support that Terry needs, that he’s not going to get from Inez. Contrary to expectations, he is the one who understands that Terry needs to know about his past, and needs some softness to make up for the brittle, jagged way that Inez approaches everything, including parenting.
There is a sense that Inez and Lucky are made for each other, and soul mates, for lack of a less cliché term, but their relationship is a complex one, and the world they live in isn’t made for happy endings, and thought there’s a scene late in the movie where Lucky gets to make his feelings and his regrets literal, we sense that there are reasons for why Lucky strays, why he needs time away from Inez. In a different flick he’d be the villain, stepping out on his family due to selfishness, but the film is far kinder to him on that front than we might have expected.
A scene, late in the flick, that I won’t completely spoil, where Inez’s response to someone across the street is an explanation as to who she is, and who’s child she’s holding, followed up with “make her up a plate”, causes our collective jaws to drop as much as it makes Terry’s jaw drop.
He can’t believe it, but we understand something about Inez, about how she has become no less made of steel, no less determined, no less ruthless, but that she has a bit more understanding, a tiny bit of gentleness towards someone we never thought was possible.
By this time, it’s 2005, and the rats have started their campaign of displacement, their war against black tenants. And by rats I mean landlords, whose grasping claws do what they can to force residents out of rent controlled apartments where you would think decency and humanity would prevail.
So, you’ve bought yourself an apartment building in Harlem. You can’t legally kick out the residents, so what do you do? You wait until they mention a defect or repair that needs doing. You send tradies in with the understanding that they have to make that problem, hopefully electrical or plumbing, way worse. Then you tell the resident that the only way to fix it is for them to move out for a couple of months, with the understanding that you’ll never repair it, and you’ll never let them back in.
Rinse, repeat until they’re all gone.
Inez and Terry spend months with water coming in through the ceiling, with the super (the maintenance guy) mysteriously not responding to calls, and a defective stove, and a shitty landlord saying “don’t you have some friends or family you could stay with?” Slimy motherfucker.
And all the while the truth of what happened back in 1994 threatens to upend what little they have, weeks before Terry turns 18, just before he could go on to bigger and better things.
This film is a lot. This film feels like a personal saga. It’s exhausting, it’s personal, it feels lived in, it never feels less than real, and it’s all about a place that barely exists in this form any more. And it’s about people on the margins barely getting by.
But it’s also about the fierceness of a woman’s love, of her need to do terrible things out of love, and her unapologetic determination to even do worse if she has to. We can admire some aspects of that, even as we might be terrified of the outcomes.
The ending maybe could be seen as somewhat unsatisfying, or ambiguous, in that it doesn’t give us clear paths for either of the two main characters going forward.
But isn’t that a more honest ending? Wouldn’t a neat, tidy ending where everyone’s happy or everyone’s learnt their lessons and promised to do better be completely at odds with the rawness and unpredictability that we’ve been watching for these two hours?
And, like, we know life doesn’t work that way, anyway.
These characters will live in my head long after the flick has ended. It’s a confronting, and very strong film. Virtually no-one will see it, but I’ll remember it. I promise. It was made on what must have been a tiny budget, probably during the lockdowns, but nothing detracts from the performances of Teyana Taylor or William Catlett.
And what an exceptional and beautiful score by Gary Gunn. That main theme, reprised throughout the film, does a lot of heavy lifting without in any way overburdening the drama.
9 times Inez is terrifying but I am more terrified of a world without Inezes out of 10
“Don’t you know I’ll go to war for you? I’ll fight this whole fucked-up town for you.” – believe it - A Thousand and One