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28 April 2023

A Thousand and One understands the effects of gentrification

In this sensitive debut about a mother who steals her son from care, AV Rockwell maps the contours of a destabilised existence in Harlem.

By Ryan Gilbey

Teyana Taylor paid tribute to the hectic neighbourhood where she was born and raised in her 2009 mixtape From a Planet Called Harlem and the 2018 single “Rose in Harlem” (“Grew out the concrete/You know it ain’t sweet”). Now she gives a soulful and occasionally snarling performance in A Thousand and One as Inez, a hairdresser with a hair-trigger temper, whose fate is tangled up with Harlem’s fluctuating fortunes.

Inez’s kiss curls and hooped earrings would establish that this is the mid-1990s even if an on-screen subtitle hadn’t told us so. Fresh out of Rikers Island prison at the age of 22, she bops among the traffic dispensing leaflets promoting her services. Her priority, though, is reconnecting with her six-year-old son, Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), who is in foster care. “Why do you keep leaving me?” he says, his tone as matter-of-fact as if he were asking where the sky ends, or why.

Like him, Inez grew up in the care system, which explains her determination to give Terry a better life: “I’ll go to war for you,” she says. This primes us to anticipate a rerun of The Sugarland ExpressSteven Spielberg’s 1974 road movie about a deluded mother (Goldie Hawn) plotting to snatch her baby from his foster parents. But the shock for Inez after she steals Terry and procures fake documents for him is that no one seems especially interested in prising the two of them apart. The relative ease with which they start a new life together in a poky apartment shows how a boy like Terry can plunge through the cracks. “Why nobody looking for me?” he asks. Another unsentimental question, another bruising moment.

In her first feature, the writer-director AV Rockwell doles out information on a need-to-know basis, and sometimes not even then. We experience the jolts in Terry’s life exactly as he does, without preamble or preparation: his mother informs him that he’s got a new name from now on (“Darryl”) and by the way this man is Lucky (William Catlett) – he’s moving in. Inez wears her name on a chain but everything else she keeps close to her chest, including the identity of Terry’s father. The boy has his suspicions. When Lucky admits to making mistakes in the past, he asks: “Was I one?”

[See also: Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is a major and personal work]

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Eric Yue’s cinematography flips between child’s-eye and bird’s-eye views, from street-level action to overhead shots, with low-resolution archive footage adding grit to the mix. There’s a similar whiplash effect in the script, which jumps from 1994 to 2001 and 2005, denying us any comfort or complacency. The disruption of having other actors taking over the role of Terry as he ages is mitigated by some fine casting – first Aven Courtney in a snazzy silver durag, the hope in his eyes undimmed, then Josiah Cross wearing a grave expression as he tries to contain his mounting panic.

An early hint that there is trouble ahead comes when Inez spots a new (white) landlord outside a nearby building. Soon she has a new landlord as well, who promises all sorts of too-good-to-be-true improvements. The reality of gentrification as it eats into a neighbourhood is incorporated into the fabric of the action, rather than verbalised. The same is true of the film’s allusions to political changes (Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the front page of the Post) and the impact these have on the family’s daily life – with Terry and his friends routinely harassed by police.

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By mirroring these disturbances in the structure of her film, the director maps the contours of a destabilised existence. It is one thing to put us in Terry and Inez’s shoes, quite another to make us feel, as Rockwell does, the ground shifting unpredictably beneath them. Gary Gunn’s string-led score is sympathetic without being mawkish, but it can only ever be a temporary salve.

The movie’s title, incidentally, refers to Inez’s apartment number, though it could just as readily suggest the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, in which storytelling becomes a literal life-saver for imperilled women, or perhaps the moment when Inez tells her son that her body was a “playground” for a thousand men before she fell pregnant with him. “That’s nasty,” the boy hisses, mortally embarrassed by his mother’s oversharing. The number also evokes insurmountable odds. “Damaged people don’t know how to love,” says Inez. Not that it stops her trying.

“A Thousand and One” is in cinemas now

[See also: The best films of 2022]

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown