Black motherhood in underprivileged urban America gets a brutally honest but loving tribute in the drama “A Thousand and One,” the feature-film debut by writer/director A.V. Rockwell, who has already become one of the most celebrated Black female filmmakers to emerge in the early 2020s. “A Thousand and One” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the festival’s top prize: the grand jury award in the U.S. Dramatic competition. “A Thousand and One” was released in theaters on March 31. This emotionally powerful movie, which takes place in New York City from 1993 to 2005, is about a hair stylist named Inez de la Paz (played by Teyana Taylor), who tries to get her life back on track in 1994, after being released from prison for theft.
Inez’s 6-year-old son Terry (played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola) has been in the foster care system, but 22-year-old Inez doesn’t want him to go back to foster care. And so, Inez takes unlawful custody of Terry, secretly relocates them from Brooklyn to Harlem, and she illegally changes his identity. Aven Courtney portrays Terry at 13 years old, while Josiah Cross has the role of Terry at 17 years old. Will Catlett depicts Inez’s love partner Lucky, who is in and out of her life.
“A Thousand and One” (which gets its title from the apartment number where Inez and Terry live for most of the story) covers issues such as racism, poverty, gentrification, and the failings of the child welfare system. Rockwell has said in interviews that it took her about two years to write the movie, and the process included a lot of research. Rockwell and Taylor recently did a roundtable interview with Black News & Views and other media outlets, where this talented filmmaker and star opened up about making “A Thousand and One” and their experiences as Black women.
A.V., how did you begin to put together this beautifully nuanced script that takes us on this journey?
Rockwell: I always wanted to tell some version of a coming-of-age story in New York City. Once I settled on that idea that I was going to do that as my first feature, I was like, “What is it about the city I want to address? What is it about that time?”
Obviously, with gentrification, I wanted to speak on that and the way it felt like we were being pushed out of the city altogether, and what was at stake—not only in terms of families and what they had fought for over generations, just to get stability, just being knocked down again, but also losing neighborhoods like Harlem, which means not only something to New Yorkers but also Black heritage and Black identity in general.
I also wanted to speak on Black womanhood. … I can’t talk about being a Black woman growing up in an inner city without talking about all of these layers by which we have to experience life.
Teyana, how did you prepare for your role as Inez?
Taylor: I felt like, honestly, it was something that was meant to be. Timing is a hell of a thing. I had so much in common with Inez. … I had prayed for so long to have an opportunity so that people could really see my range and what I can do.
It was a way to finally turn off my strength for once and be weak and cry out loud. Any private battles that I was battling—dealing with postpartum depression, dealing with a lot of loss. I was really grieving. And so, to really tap into Inez was a special thing and really therapeutic for me, because I’ve been strong all my life—and a lot of the time, not by choice. Being in survival mode is a skill, something that we have as Black women.
What are your thoughts on the father-son connection that Lucky and Terry have with each other?
Rockwell: This movie is [not only] about the power of family but also the power of fatherhood, the power of when you do show up and commit to the role. And the beauty in that and the impact that it can have. I wanted to give men who feel like Lucky, who are drenched in their masculinity, the permission to be vulnerable and to be loving in a way that is open and fully expressed.
A lot of viewers won’t be prepared for how the movie ends. What can you say about the ending, without giving away too much information?
Rockwell: It’s a complicated ending. Our story [as Black people] remains complicated. Every generation, every cycle of trauma, every circumstance that is thrown at us—sometimes we can get blinded by that. But the truth is despite what happens to us or what gets thrown our way, we still are overcoming them, and we still are making progress.
What do you say to mothers who might see this movie but who can’t relate to the struggles that Inez has?
Rockwell: If this is your experience, I want you to feel seen. If this is not your experience, I want you to have a better understanding and feel more connected to the experience of another human being, especially for a woman like Inez, who walks through the world. A lot of what society does is instead of trying to understand her and be supportive to her, what they’ll try to do is try to pacify her: “Maybe if you were a little quieter, maybe if you talked a certain way, maybe if you moved through the world in a different way, then maybe things wouldn’t be so difficult for you.” I think that’s the way we are treated as Black women, let alone as Black mamas.
I hope that if you are not Inez [that you] have more compassion for her and celebrate all the ways in which she’s heroic. … Even within our community, there’s classism, there’s colorism. There are so many layers this woman has to suppress and overcome in order to show up with the full capacity to love her child. I want people to really feel more connected and supportive of her in the way that she needs.
What surprised you the most from making this movie? And what did you learn from that surprise?
Rockwell: It was very challenging making this movie. No matter how much I could have prepared for it, I was definitely surprised at all of the obstacles I had to overcome as a filmmaker and as a human being in order to make this movie. In some ways, I was surprised by myself and how I was able to rise to all of the occasions, because it definitely challenged me in ways I hadn’t experienced before as a filmmaker. I’m very proud of that.
Despite everything that I went through and all of the things I wanted for the movie … it’s still ultimately a movie that resonates in all the ways that I wanted and how it’s been received so far. I’m surprised that, despite all the odds, it happened, but I’m very grateful and very proud of myself for the ways I was able to grow as a filmmaker in this process.
Taylor: I was very surprised that it was therapeutic. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even have the whole script yet [when I signed on for “A Thousand and One”]. I had done [acting] projects before, but to do something like this, where one day you’re 22, the next day you’re 32, one day you have a 6-year-old son, the next day, you have a 17-year-old son talking back.
With the different layers of Inez, it was shocking to see myself [in the movie], from start to finish, because we shot [the movie] out of order—like all the different facial expressions, how detailed it was. … There are a lot of shock factors in this film, but [they are] beautiful, shocking things that I never thought I could put on a screen. It was amazing.
There’s a lot of emotional heaviness in this movie. How did you deal with it?
Taylor: Everything was heavy, even the good times.
Rockwell: That’s what this movie is about—people being able to live and to love each other without somebody trying to push them out or knock them down. [The movie] was always going to have a certain level of heaviness. I cared so much about honoring the people that this story was about. I took that very seriously.
I’m a New Yorker, but I’m not from Harlem, specifically. I wanted to make sure that I did right by this neighborhood that I think every Black American should appreciate and want to protect. Caring so deeply about this movie, that was my North Star, that is what kept me going and anchored.
What are your thoughts on whether or not things are improving for female filmmakers in the industry?
Rockwell: It’s a mixed perspective for me. Optically, you are seeing changes in very beautiful ways. In the last year alone, there were so many major releases that were made by Black women and put us at the center. And put [a variety of] women at the center, if you look at those that were recognized as among the best pictures of the year.
I think being embraced by audiences and by the industry on both critical levels and box office [levels] is really beautiful. Younger generations of women can see that and say, “Oh, I can do this too.” That’s really important and really outstanding.
However, these are just optics. These are what we’re seeing, and what’s being pushed front and center, or marketed in certain ways, in addition to us finally getting a seat at the table. But statistically, I think that’s what’s more important. It’s a wide-spanning industry. Black women represent only 2% of working directors. Even if there are more of us that you are seeing, how many of us are actually working?
For a lot of people, what we’re doing, what we’re passionate about is a hobby until somebody gives them their space and opportunity, creating a lane for them to be working in TV, working in film, in a way that is consistent to get stories out and represent us in better ways. I really want to see those numbers jump dramatically before I really feel confident that we’re in a new era.