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‘A Thousand and One’ Review: A Refreshing Approach

Director: A.V. Rockwell

Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

A Thousand and One centers on Brooklyn’s own Inez (Teyana Taylor), a mother who steals her 6 year old son Terry (Aaron Kingsly Adetola) from foster care soon after she’s released from jail. She moves to Harlem, reunites with her boyfriend and future husband Lucky (William Catlett), but the struggles they faced when they were young never really leave them.

Watching this in a theater created a unified tension because so many of the circumstances on screen were familiar and palpable. From a stop and frisk on the streets, to a superintendent taking over an apartment, bringing updates and higher rent, to your partner’s side piece lingering around the corner, A Thousand and One is the epitome of waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing that there will be another one and another one afterward. Because of this motif, audiences may not see the biggest drop that sneaks up and floors us right as the film reaches its conclusion.

The film opens with New York, but not in a stock way. There aren’t many visions of the Statue of Liberty or Chrysler Building or trips to Chinatown. Instead, we’re centered in the city because of the slang, the people, and the congestion. 

There’s one shot of The Apollo and one of Ellis Island, but Rockwell and cinematographer Eric Yue center the movie by calling on the talents of the music and sound department and making the voices of ex-Mayor’s Giuliani and Bloomberg the echoes in the film. 

Their past speeches literally play over the film during transitions, similar to how Straight Outta Compton played the Rodney King beating and trial on TVs in the background of many of its scenes. 

The voices of the ex-mayors contrast with the more important sound of the city, the hip hop of the era. We don’t want to hear the voices of Giuliani and Bloomberg, but the choice is effective in creating context. Their voices are the site and sound, but there’s definitely more to the film than just that.

When a movie takes place in New York, audiences already know the city will be a character. The sounds, smells, and smog don’t take on a character of their own, they just are. A Thousand and One pays respect to the hip hop mentioned earlier (happy 50th birthday by the way) in an unexpected way. 

Rather than pushing the sounds of Biggie and The Wu, the birthplace of hip hop comes to us through lesser known artists and the samples that it’s known for. Lucky teaches and shares the idea of samples with Terry at age 13 (Aven Courtney) by giving him cassettes in a heartfelt moment.

The music becomes the backdrop and foundation for their relationship because they don’t see eye to eye on much else. Now the city feels even more lived in, their relationship feels more sincere, and we want more of it.

In A Thousand and One, time doesn’t really move with the city. Yes, there are beepers, pay phones, and decade specific clothing, but time more so moves through the characters as they age. We see Inez move through different styles, jobs, and skills, though her talent and focus is really on hair, while her husband comes and goes from their apartment, his beard a little more gray each time. 

Terry is the main character that allows us to track time, though I found the use of three actors to play him striking. This could be an issue of pacing and editing, but as mentioned earlier, we grow close to these characters after each scene. We’re with them when they carry everything they own in a duffel and trash bag. We’re with them when a pipe bursts above their apartment and they run out of buckets to hold the water. 

So as we grow and empathize with them, they shift and age up. The trauma Terry carries is clear, but we don’t quite know how it played out at each stage of his life because of how the film moves.

Josiah Cross plays Terry at age 17, which isn’t that large of a gap from 13, and he’s probably my second favorite actor for the character. The choice to cast three actors worked well in Moonlight because the film was actually moving generationally whereas in this film we’re going from prepubescent to puberty to high school senior. 

The actors handle the roles well, and I particularly love Josiah’s depiction once Terry is able to stand up for himself, but I really wanted to see more of Aven as Terry. This is the most interesting time in a person’s life because of the lack of control and stability and Aven was perfect for this. 

This film covers over 10 years, including multiple emotional scenes between Inez and 6 year old Terry with Lucky in the background, but by the time Terry is 13, Lucky’s consistently been in and out of his life for a significant amount of time. Their relationship at 17 doesn’t feel very genuine because they barely had a connection 4 years prior. 

We move from Lucky not accepting Terry as his son to telling him he loves him amidst shooting basketball. Most of the growth and push takes place between Terry and Inez, so it’s difficult to blindly accept her husband’s change.

Overall, A Thousand and One is a solid film, with a good script, particularly from a dialogue standpoint. The characters don’t often overdo their lines and the team brings fresh approaches to common situations. The film only feels forced or cheesy a few times and even though the pace feels fast, there are some moments when the film feels extended. It potentially could have accomplished the same depth, if not more, with fewer years covered and slightly longer scenes.

The sad and unfortunate turn at the end of the movie is a good twist, accomplished thanks to full commitment to maintaining plot points for as long as possible. As the film moves, we wait for everything to break, not just their pipes and their patience, and we’re so focused on these things falling apart that we don’t see the obvious crack in front of us. 

The turn at the end reframes the entire film in a perfect way. All the physical and emotional abuse and manipulation was palpable and never shied away from, but I appreciated that the team only used enough to get the point across to the audience. The final scene is lackluster, but doesn’t take away from the overall.

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