REVIEW: A Thousand and One (dir. A.V. Rockwell)

Certificate: 15 (strong language)

Running Time: 117 mins

UK Distributor: Universal

WHO’S IN A THOUSAND AND ONE?

Teyana Taylor, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Josiah Cross, Will Catlett, Terri Abney

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

A.V. Rockwell (director, writer), Julia Lebedev, Rishi Rajani, Eddie Vaisman, Lena Waithe and Brad Weston (producers), Gary Gunn (composer), Eric K. Yue (cinematographer), Sabine Hoffman and Kristan Sprague (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A mother (Taylor) kidnaps her young son (Adetola) from the foster system…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON A THOUSAND AND ONE?

Before he became a political laughingstock for his idiotic statements, disastrous publicity stunts, and running hair dye, Rudy Giuliani was, believe it or not, a semi-respectable politician. Serving two terms as Mayor of New York between 1994 and 2001, he became known as “America’s Mayor” in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, due to his calm and reassuring demeanour that won the hearts of most people not just in the United States but around the world.

However, that isn’t to say that his mayoral policies were any less harmful than they are today, particularly with controversial crackdowns on criminal activity that arguably made things a lot more difficult for underprivileged citizens, including those of colour who were prone to regular stop-and-frisk searches by newly empowered police officers.

Of course, Giuliani isn’t the main focus of A Thousand and One, the debut feature of writer-director A.V. Rockwell, but his presence is deeply felt in this harrowing and powerful tale of life as a minority in the realm of America’s Mayor, where opportunities are fleeting at best and systems are designed down to the last few nuts and bolts to work against them in almost every capacity.

The multi-year spanning film begins in the streets of Harlem in 1995, where a young woman named Inez (Teyana Taylor), who’s recently been released from an unspecified incarceration at Rikers Island, spots a young boy, Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), passing by. Terry, as it quickly becomes apparent, is the son she was forced to give up when she went to prison, and has been dumped into the foster system as another statistic ever since.

After realising that Terry is unhappy with his current guardians (to where he’s ended up in hospital after trying to run away from them), Inez makes the difficult decision to illegally take him home with her, effectively kidnapping a ward of the state, and with falsified identification documents they attempt to start a new life together as mother and son, with Inez’s on-and-off-again partner Lucky (Will Catlett) soon joining their makeshift family.

However, ten years later when Terry reaches young adulthood (and has transformed into formidable young actor Josiah Cross) and starts to consider his independence, he begins to face the devastating consequences of his mother’s actions when he was just a child.

There’s a lot on Rockwell’s mind when it comes to socio-political commentary surrounding the long-term effects of Giuliani’s leadership, from the ineffectiveness of the care system to the cruel disenfranchisement of former residents in newly gentrified neighbourhoods, but wisely the first-time feature filmmaker leaves most of it as window-dressing until they need to be formally addressed.

The focus is predominantly on the story of a mother trying her hardest to survive in a world that she feels is always out to get her, on top of raising a son who will have the opportunities that she was never given. Rockwell proves herself to be a formidable and concise storyteller, beginning her tale at the right place and ending it at an equally appropriate moment as well, all while drip-feeding the audience enough hints of the political context dominating the background without drawing too much attention to all the string-pulling.

Her structuring of events is neatly laid out, and helps the viewer build a genuine emotional connection with characters as their arcs remain linear and straightforward, without resorting to sudden time-jumps back and forth from the movie’s present. It is focused, engrossing, and above all smooth in its writing and direction, which makes it a damn impressive calling card for Rockwell as yet another master storyteller in the making.

So much of A Thousand and One also rests on the believability of the performances and how these actors manage to subvert expectations in addition to humanising their larger-than-life personas, and the cast – led by an indomitable Teyana Taylor – deliver excellent turns across the board. Taylor, in particular, is the crowning jewel with a lead turn – the first in the singer/choreographer’s acting career – that deserves at least one award within the next year, for she embodies a fiery fight-or-flight spirit that is matched only by her natural on-screen magnetism, as well as her ability to make her temperamental character relatively unpredictable throughout.

It is a testament to the performer’s ability to keep her character’s true intentions under close guard at all times that the viewer never knows how to truly feel around her, whether it’s sympathy for her plight or being quietly appalled by some of her actions, but it never comes off like she’s ever a villain, and is instead a damaged anti-hero with a complex background that has dominated all of her decisions, be they good or bad.

It’s a lead performance so great that I’m almost certain it isn’t going to be recognised by any major awards bodies come the end of the year; blame it on the too-early release date, or its respectable but muted box office performance, but you can count on Teyana Taylor being mentioned in several articles about the year’s most under-looked turns that deserve more attention.

It is an excellent film, filled with heart, brains and courage – a.k.a the full Wizard of Oz treatment – with a surprising dash of hope amidst all the devastating political subtext. Then, there is an earth-shattering twist towards the end which makes it an even more fascinating watch, and even encourages repeat viewings to pick up on certain traits that hint at this unexpected turn of events.

I hear that this particular twist – no spoilers here, obviously – is quickly becoming a make-or-break moment for most critics and audiences, especially those who weren’t expecting a Shyamalan-style twist in this grounded drama, but all it does is reinforce the hard-knuckled themes of perseverance and determination in a world that, once again, is designed to keep certain folks down.

I found it to be a powerful and utterly emotional way to conclude a film that was already pretty powerful and emotional (making it in many ways the exact opposite of last month’s Allelujah), and a stark reminder of how, for as much as we all hate Rudy Giuliani now, there’s plenty more reasons not to like America’s Mayor for his rather murky way of governing his own city.

SO, TO SUM UP…

A Thousand and One is a powerful and emotional socio-political drama that quietly condemns the suppressive policies of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, but wisely keeps the commentary at bay in favour of a compelling modern-day story of survival, led by a fantastic Teyana Taylor in a performance that deserves some awards recognition.

Rating A Thousand and One

A Thousand and One is showing in cinemas

from Friday 21st April 2023 – click here to

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