Teyana Taylor Stars in This Unconventional NYC Film : NPR
one thousand and one begins in 1994, shortly before a 22-year-old woman named Inez was released from Rikers Island. We don’t know much about her, but Teyana Taylor, the electrifying actress who plays her, tells us a lot about how brash and confident Inez is roaming her old Brooklyn turf after a year away.
As she greets old friends and looks for work as a hairdresser, Inez is determined to put the past behind her – although that becomes impossible when she meets her 6-year-old son, Terry, on the street. Terry was sent to foster care when Inez went to prison, and while he resents her for leaving him, he would clearly rather be with her again than in his current situation.
So when Terry has an accident at home, Inez impulsively gets him out of the hospital and takes him to the Harlem neighborhood where she grew up. They keep a low profile for a while, though it quickly becomes clear that no one is really looking for Terry, who is just one of many children who have slipped through the cracks of the foster care system. Inez grew up in this system herself and she wants to give Terry the loving home she never had.
Soon she finds them in a run-down apartment in Harlem – the number on the door, 10-01, is an explanation of the film’s title. For the next few years, this apartment will be their home, but it’s a precarious home, where every happy moment seems both fleeting and hard-earned.
Inez works long hours to support herself and Terry, a gifted student whose teachers think he might be Ivy League material. Eventually, Inez marries Lucky, a former boyfriend played by a charismatic William Catlett. Although not the most faithful husband, Lucky becomes a genuinely loving father figure to Terry.
Terry is played at ages 6, 13 and 17 by actors Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross. The use of three actors to play a young black man at different ages has already earned cinematic comparisons to Barry Jenkins’ sublime 2016 drama, Moonlight. But these similarities aside, one thousand and one is particularly interested in the mother of the young man. Taylor, an R&B performer in her first starring film role, carries the full weight of Inez’s sacrifices. By the end, the sultry, free-spirited woman we met in the opening scenes has become visibly sadder and more weary, though still possessed by the same devilish defiance.
Whether one thousand and one was just a story about a mother and her son overcoming obstacles, it would be quite emotional. But writer-director AV Rockwell, making a strong feature debut after years of directing shorts and music videos, gives this intimate drama a sharp sociopolitical context. Even as Inez and Terry age, the town around them also changes. At the start, Harlem vibrates with grit and energy, filmed in a vibrant, kinetic style and set to a 90s hip-hop beat. By the end, the neighborhood has been gentrified beyond recognition, as in evidenced by the film’s colder, darker palette and its many shots of anonymous-looking offices and apartment buildings.
Rockwell is quick to detail the impact of these changes on communities of color in general, and Inez and Terry in particular. They are gradually driven out of their apartment by a new owner who wants to demolish the building. Terry and his friends are regularly harassed by the police – a development Rockwell interweaves with real news clips covering Mayor Giuliani’s adoption of “stop and frisk” policies.
None of this comes across as didactic; Rockwell deftly weaves his commentary into a story that turns out to be less conventional and more surprising than it seems. She also reminds us that Inez and Terry are more than their difficult circumstances. We see it in the playful scenes of 17-year-old Terry flirting with a girl behind a restaurant counter, or the poignant moment when Inez – rather than fighting with one of Lucky’s girlfriends, as she might have formerly – instead treat her with modesty and grace.
Rockwell has such a sure grasp of her characters and their complexities that she’s able to end the story on a boldly unresolved note. I left the movie thinking about what might happen to Inez and Terry, and feeling grateful for the time I had spent with them.