A Thousand One: Sit or Skip
March 27th, 2023, I attended the theatrical premiere of A Thousand One in New York City and did not spend a two hour bus ride home compiling my many thoughts into a semi sane semi organized not so comprehensive essay. But I did so the next morning. It has also been, once again, edited for clarity. It goes a little something like this:
By Steph Prizhitomsky
That’s a word that comes to mind when describing A.V. Rockwell’s grand jury award winning feature at Sundance.
Visionary is another.
This film is a force to be reckoned with.
And though on the outside, it may not seem like it houses one of the best and most narratively beneficial plot twists in recent history, it manages to shock, uplift, and bring to tears an audience that thought they knew what story they were getting themselves into. The result is something spectacular.
A Thousand and One follows the story of Inez, a young woman living in mid 90s New York City as she takes her son, Terry, out of the foster care system without permission and fights with all her might to bring him a better life.
The following years that the film covers are a rollercoaster. Ups and downs of everyday life over the course of Terry’s adolescence all under the precarious light of the illegality of their situation.
Terry grows up.
Inez marries a man called Lucky.
They find their permanent place in Harlem and make it a home.
And all the while New York City changes all around them as the omnipresent voice of the changing leadership in the city calls to action an initiative to make the city clean and beautiful again overtop of birds eye view shots of the skyscrapers as Gary Gunn’s dreamy, ethereal score sets the scene.
God I love the music of this film.
This movie is about family but above all, motherhood and the relationship between Inez and her son: unbreakably strong, imperfect at times, ever evolving.
But never do you doubt for a millisecond of a second that Inez loves her son.
Every opportunity, every door that is opened to him. And all the opportunities he would not have had if she hadn’t taken him.
Because Inez is not Terry’s biological mother.
And in the eyes of the state, she was his kidnapper.
This is the plot twist that begs a rewatch of the film. An absolute need to reanalyse every little detail and be able to see the story with an entirely fresh set of eyes towards the events that unfold.
The film we think we are watching is a redemption story of Inez. Her fighting to regain custody of her son that she lost to foster care and doing what she can when that right is denied. Her learning to be a mother with the responsibility that had been placed upon her.
But that’s not the story we’re seeing. It’s been right in front of us the whole time, and though we think we are following the perspective of Inez and thus know her goals and motivations, in reality, we see their lives play out through Terry’s eyes, and when he is told the truth of his parentage, we are just as shocked as he is.
Upon my first viewing of the film, I was so caught up in the narrative I thought was going on that I believed the plot twist hurt the film immensely and stripped it off certain layers of meaning by nullifying the mother learning to raise her child against all odds plot thread. But I was wrong.
The plot twist is what makes the film truly extraordinary.
The cold, painful truth is not that Inez was secretly a bad person or a kidnapper or that the kidnapping was malicious, but that her not being Terry’s biological mother, her choosing to take up the responsibility of him knowing it would make the rest of her life one on eggshells, leaving behind her freedom, her dreams and goals, her security, makes her a complete and utter selfless character who gave up everything for, without any sliver of a doubt, her son.
There is a reason Inez was so defensive when her motherhood was questioned, when she was told by her friend's mother that she was a bad one. Because her friend's mother only wanted to see the picturesque family: a mother, a father, a child, stable jobs, and a home. When Inez achieved that, she was happy,
Kim’s mother’s fight was against who she thought was a young irresponsible mother who couldn’t consistently provide for her child.
But she, like the audience, had no idea what was really happening.
The sacrifices made by Inez.
Inez was never selfish, never did anything for herself, never got to go back to school or open the hair salon she dreamed of because she gave everything and did everything for a kid that wasn’t even hers because he did need her, and she needed him.
Inez knew Terry couldn’t grow up in the same tumultuous household she took him from, so she chose a positive role model as a father figure which was Lucky and stayed with him even when he wasn’t there for her and had a kid with another woman because she knew Terry needed a consistent father in his life and how much he meant to him.
Her inviting that woman and her child to Lucky’s funeral and being welcoming to them in the face of their shared grief was an incredibly poignant moment.
Watching her character, a vibrant and strong minded young woman, develop into a mature and determined mother, still fierce, but more in control of her life, to then being reduced to the chaos and dysfunction she fought so hard to escape is heart achingly infuriating.
Even more so when you know the truth of her situation. This is not her learning to mature and take care of her son properly after losing him to foster care. This is her losing her freedom and independence in place of putting everything she’s got to the son she chose. And she’s happy with this decision. She’s created a better life for herself. But she’s so evidently tired and drained. Emotionally and physically. And still, they come to take away what she gave away everything to build up.
In the end, the only selfish thing she did was run to save herself from going to jail, and that wasn’t a selfish thing at all but a release.
You want to shake the people who don't even know how horribly they’re wronging her.
You want above all else for her to somehow succeed but know she cannot.
Maybe somewhere else but not the way things are changing in her home she’s known all her life.
Not in New York City.
This is a story about ultimate sacrifice and loss and the determination of a young woman to ensure a child with no one to care about him knows he is loved, has a home, and a bright future.
Because at the end of the day, that’s all she wanted. She sacrificed everything for a child that wasn’t hers. She gave him the life she never had as a child in foster care herself. And that makes her final words to Terry at the end of the film, her heartbreaking I Won all the more powerful. But in a way, she had even this taken from her, forced to leave her city, her child.
The movie’s villain isn’t a woman kidnapping a child and raising them as her own, Mother Gothel style.
No. This movie’s villain is all smiles. Sweetness that could never possibly bite.
The cool head that follows protocol above all.
Or perhaps what that protocol represents.
That’s part of the twisted irony of the ending of the film.
Terry was so close to turning eighteen, to making it out, when he let slip the wrong thing, and the situation of his upbringing came pouring out: his falsified documents, his abduction.
But because of one little mistake which catapulted into a life altering moment in a matter of hours, he would be put back into foster care and very likely have all his dreams and work, not to mention that of Inez’s be reduced to nothing.
It’s a very bittersweet ending.
It’s about how indescribably fucked the system is and how little the people in charge care to change it.
What looks pretty? Real work and sacrifice? Immeasurable commitment? How does it look on paper? In a glossy commercial?
How about the reality? How does it look in real life for real people?
It’s painful to leave the theater knowing everything Inez gave up just to have it all come toppling down, and in many ways, the school finding out Terry was kidnapped was only the final domino.
Perhaps the first domino was the apartment starting to fall apart. Perhaps it was the building across the street being sold.
Perhaps it was the death of Lucky.
Perhaps it was their new landlord pushing them out of their home in the most sickening way possible.
All smiles. Always all smiles. Just following protocol.
Because in a way, you know from the start, this can’t go on forever.
Sooner or later, they’d be caught. Inez and Terry had a target on their backs because of the nature of the situation.
We know Inez was doomed from the second she took Terry in.
But she did everything she could to make sure Terry wasn’t doomed too.
Maybe you agree with her decision to take Terry, maybe not, but at the end of the day, you come out of that movie knowing no one but her could’ve powered and pushed and fought tooth and nail to get him the opportunities he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
And they still punished her for it because the system is relentless and lacks compassion even from sympathetic people with even an ounce of power. A friendly face and eager smile can so quickly turn on you to fulfill a quota and make sure things are neat and tidy and the rules are followed, no matter nuance, no matter who gets hurt in the process.
How quickly the guidance counselor began grilling him on whether he had come to the country illegally, about his time in the foster system, eagerly calculating which box to check, which form to fill, to neatly put Terry away to be someone else’s problem. How quickly she reached for the phone. How quickly she crumbled their lives by just doing her job and absolutely nothing else as a human being with empathy and understanding.
She mirrors the mayors of the town, always talking, never really there, making pretty promises to make beautiful of a city and remove and relocate all that dares to interfere, all that dares to be, in the eyes of a clean new city wiped of all that made it alive, imperfect.
It felt like a love letter and a curse to New York City all at once. Perhaps a love letter to the people who call it home, and a curse to the people trying to kick them out.
I have so many more positive things to say about this film just based on the story but from the production value alone, you can tell just how much care and thought went into it.
The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Every shot is a splendor to see.
The city feels alive and vibrant under Eric K. Yue’s touch.
Did I mention how obsessed I am with the score? Makes me feel like I’m floating on air.
All the performances overall really enhanced the film, but Teyana Taylor was such a standout of an actress as Inez. She could make you laugh aloud and gut punch you with emotion all in just one scene. Her natural charisma and determination made it so easy to root for her character, and her performance never felt unnatural or stilted or anything less than painfully real.
All I’ve got to say is Teyana Taylor Oscar winner when? Looking at you, Academy.
Go watch this film.