In the brief snippets that form the opening montage of A Thousand and One, it’s clear writer-director AV Rockwell has an assured aesthetic sense: street corners buzzing with chatter and pulsing with 90s hip-hop, greetings and handshakes, the cacophony of 1994 Brooklyn as it bends around an assured Teyana Taylor’s take-no-prisoners walk. We first meet Taylor’s Inez a year earlier, in a single sumptuous shot at Riker’s Island; now she’s back, beeper on her hip, looking for Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), the six-year-old child she left behind.
Rockwell’s beautiful yet underwhelming debut set over a decade in rapidly gentrifying New York, proceeds unemphatically, like a collection of artfully staged vignettes loosely unspooled from a single impulsive act. That act – Inez, a 22-year-old hairdresser desperate to restart, steals Terry from under the nose of his foster family – first appears to us, as it likely would to the characters, as far less consequential and dramatic than it is. For all Inez’s fire and the stakes of their predicament (no work, no place to live, few bridges left unburned, a crime against the state), Inez and Terry’s escape to Harlem plays out, through cinematographer Eric Yue’s ravishing cinematography and Gary Gunn’s warm score, as almost languid and easy.
It’s indicative of the film’s muddled tone, which gestures at an intriguing, tricky mix of modes – appreciation for the vibrancy of Harlem, an elegy for the neighborhood’s vampiric gentrification, the understated beauty of making it, a classic gritty underdog story, straight-up melodrama – but struggles to bring them together. Like producer Lena Waithe’s undercooked, unauthorized early Whitney Houston biopic Beauty, A Thousand and One suffers from an elevation of mood and aesthetic over plot, pacing and, most frustratingly, lived-in dialogue.
Almost every shot artfully embodies a feeling or characteristic: tenacity, in the way Inez paints Terry’s room after she scrabbles to find a job and a small apartment; loss, in the way she regards her formerly incarcerated, on-and-off lover Lucky (William Catlett); yearning, in the family their wedding creates; steely vulnerability, as Inez dots her apartment with buckets after the new white landlord ignores their requests to fix busted pipes. But other than Taylor’s red-hot performance, there’s little connective tissue between them; what could be a gut punch ends up feeling aimless and shallow.
The film does blossom with time, in line with Terry. The confusion of 1994 fades to 2001, when 14-year-old Terry (Aven Courtney) displays promise in school and has questions about his background, then to 2005. Until about halfway through, the child is more plot device than character (save for a montage of the six-year-old trying to entertain himself when left alone for a summer day while Inez works, the most viscerally aching moment in a film that tried much harder, at other points, to pull on the heartstrings). He says little other than the anvil-heavy lines needed to provoke the adults – why are you always leaving me? Where’s my dad at? Was I a mistake? The more Terry grows into a curious, confused, wounded person, as he does in the hands of Josiah Cross, playing him at 17, the more propulsive and emotionally weighty the film becomes. And the more you worry for his safety from the forces around him – gentrification, self-absorbed and soulless school counselors, New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, among others.
Taylor does the most to compensate for an underwritten script that, by the end, tips into melodrama with vague motivations. In her first leading screen role, she embodies a searing, difficult character – combative and hardened, quick to express love and maternal affection through anger and scolding, fiercely loyal yet understandably bitter and lonely. Her acting can feel at times too beat by beat, but it’s hard to imagine the film working without her gravitational force.
A Thousand and One is ultimately most successful as a portrait of ever-shifting, ever-warring New York. Yue’s camerawork and Rockwell’s eye for marginalized communities’ vitality and vulnerability add richness where individual scenes do not. Audio montages indicating the passage of time – clips from speeches by mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, among others – smartly convey the backdrop of Inez and Terry’s arc without clouding it. It is moving enough, and devastating, to understand the peril Terry faces every time he walks the street, or the reason Inez nearly vibrates with stress under stop and frisk, without bending into outright tragedy.
That’s one instance where the film’s hands-off quality works in its favor. In many others, its meandering, mood-laden manner does not. There are many things working well in Rockwell’s debut, Taylor’s performance chief among them, but the end result doesn’t match her character’s formidable strength.