PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 22: (L-R) Teyana Taylor, Director A.V. Rockwell, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, William Catlett, and Josiah Cross attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “A Thousand And One” Premiere at The Ray Theatre on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Unique Nicole/Getty Images)
By Bailey Pennick
A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature, A Thousand and One, is the powerful story of the unbreakable bond between a mother and her son.
A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature, A Thousand and One, is a film shining a spotlight on the struggles and strength of inner-city Black women.
A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature, A Thousand and One, is a complex look at the foster care system in America.
A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature, A Thousand and One, highlights the power of a chosen family in all its forms and definitions.
A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature, A Thousand and One, is a damning portrait of gentrification in New York City.
A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature, which just premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, is all of these immensely important things weaved together without feeling overwhelming or cluttered. The writer-director deftly paints a portrait of one family over the course of two decades — featuring a stunning Teyana Taylor as Inez, the family’s matriarch — however, the true main character of the film is the neighborhood of Harlem itself.
“I think growing up in New York and seeing the city change was hard to reconcile,” Rockwell says, struggling to hold back tears after the credits roll on her film’s premiere screening. Taylor grabs and hugs her as the audience gives her another warm round of applause. “Even watching it right now, it’s hard to overcome generational cycles, so families like Inez, Terry, and Lucky’s — they have to fight so hard to overcome what the generation before them had to go through. So when new obstacles like gentrification knock at your door, it’s just so devastating.”
Through archival news audio that wafts through the background of the saga of Inez and her son Terry, whom she effectively kidnaps from the foster care system simply by walking out of the hospital with him after she’s released from Rikers Island, we’re reminded of the eras (and draconian policies) of New York’s mayors past, including Giuliani and Bloomberg. Within the context of Inez and Terry’s story, we experience New York’s metamorphosis through dialogue about rents rising and neighbors changing in their building and on their block.
Throughout all of these external and internal changes, Inez stays committed to her son and their little corner of the world. Even when faced with a nearly unlivable apartment due to a new landlord trying to force the pair out in order to rent their small apartment to the new type of clientele moving into Harlem, Inez perseveres. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating to watch, especially when you start to think about how common these kinds of tactics are in so many “up-and-coming” neighborhoods.
“That was a huge reason why this [story] was so urgent to me,” the filmmaker explains. “And [it’s so urgent] for the Black moms and matriarchs, like my mom. How hard they had to fight! I just wanted to thank them.” Rockwell collects herself again, overwhelmed by the support of her film and its complex messages: “Society — and even within our own community — inner-city Black women are so invisible and misunderstood. It was so important, for me, that I tell their story as best as I could, and just try to be a voice for them. To let people into their lives a little bit and understand them a bit better. And celebrate them… As I wrote the story I wanted something that was going to be truthful to the city and the people as I knew them.”
As the post-premiere discussion starts to wind down, someone in the back of the theater asks Rockwell what the meaning of the title is. A Thousand and One. The writer-director smiles and asks if anyone “caught it” in the film. After a brief pause she reveals the truth: “It was their apartment number.”