It’s 1993, An audacious and free-spirited Inez (Teyana Taylor) has recently been released from Rikers Island. A year later, she’s living in a Brooklyn homeless shelter and struggling to get by but is determined to stay out of trouble. One day, Inez spots Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), a six year old boy she’d left behind. He’s reluctant to approach her, still distrustful over the fact that she abandoned him on the street. But the boy lands in hospital after an accident in his foster home and she starts visiting, getting past his petulance with a toy. She makes an impulsive decision to whisk him away to Harlem; she’s determined to be a mother to him even if it means she’s guilty of kidnapping.
She buys Terry forged papers, calls him by a different name and enrolls him in school, where he quietly flourishes. That opens up the possibilities once he approaches college age, but it also means additional paperwork is required, threatening to expose their shared secret and pull them apart again.
As Terry’s teenage growing pains emerge, it creates friction between them. Inez resumes a rocky romance with Lucky (Will Catlett) following his release from prison. He provides a father figure for Terry, but Inez is an extroverted personality whose abrasive, combative flaws make it difficult for Lucky. Inez is a streetwise, experience-hardened love, which leads to fights with Lucky who disappear for weeks at a time.
A handful of years later, the nearly 18-year-old Terry (Josiah Cross) finally gets the courage to approach the young woman he’s had a crush on for years. All the while, the mother and son’s relationship serves as a foundation for the film. She is an unapologetic mother determined to provide her son with a different path from hers even if she can only give him the sharp edges of herself.
Inez seems painfully aware of that tension between her and her son. Both of them are damaged people. The ferocity of her maternal affection and instinct are both wonderful and terrifying at the same time, but she knows it’s what is needed to keep her little family together. That basically sums up “A Thousand and One,” the film that won the 2023 Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic.
Told over a period of 15 years, from 1994 to 2005, The film deals with the rapid gentrification and discriminatory policing policies that were happening in New York City at that time. Through this story, director A.V. Rockwell — who sharpened her skills on acclaimed short films and commercials — makes acute observations about the changes to the fabric of life in New York City over the years of mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg administrations. Their crackdown on street crime led to racial profiling and the stop-and-frisk policies that targeted people of color and affected the life of this film’s characters.
The struggles of a young woman of color trying to rebuild her life after a prison stint are conveyed with raw detail. What sets aside this movie apart from other, similarly tough-minded stories of urban struggle and poverty is the way its director fashioned the story into an admiring portrait of survivorship, determination and resourcefulness. Cinematographer Eric K. Yue, working with the Arri Alexa Mini lenses, vividly captures New York across two decades through a mix of vintage footage and the use of these lenses.
Director Rockwell offers a moving character portrait of a complicated woman who makes good and bad decisions but is motivated by the desire to create a better life for herself and the people she loves. The film presents a vivid and gut-wrenching portrait that shows the countless obstacles that Inez encounters in just getting through the minutiae of her life. In the end, “A Thousand and One” is one of the most breathtakingly honest films presented at this year’s Sundance.