IIn the brief snippets that form the opening montage of One Thousand and One, it’s clear that writer-director AV Rockwell has an assured aesthetic sense: street corners buzz with chatter and throb with ’90s hip-hop, greetings and handshakes, the cacophony of 1994 Brooklyn as it bends around an assured ride from Teyana Taylor. We first meet Taylor’s Inez a year earlier, in a lavish single shot at Riker’s Island; now she’s back, beep on the hip, looking for Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), the six-year-old child she left behind.
Set over a decade in gentrifying New York City, Rockwell’s beautiful but underwhelming debut unfolds without emphasis, like a collection of artfully staged, loosely staged vignettes of a single, impulsive act. This act – Inez, a 22-year-old hairstylist desperate for a reboot, steals Terry from under the noses of her foster family – strikes us at first, as it probably would for the characters, as far less consequential and dramatic than it is not. Despite all of Inez’s fire and the stakes of their predicament (no job, no place to live, few unburned bridges, a crime against the state), Inez and Terry’s escape to Harlem plays out, through cinematographer Eric Yue’s ravishing cinematography and Gary Gunn’s warm direction. score, as almost languid and easy.
It’s indicative of the film’s confused tone, which evokes an intriguing and delicate mix of moods – appreciation for the vibrancy of Harlem, an elegy for the neighborhood’s vampiric gentrification, the understated beauty of doing it, a classic story of the gritty underdog, frank melodrama – but struggles to bring them together. Like producer Lena Waithe’s first undercooked and unauthorized Whitney Houston biopic, One Thousand and One suffers from an elevation in mood and aesthetic over plot, pacing and, most frustratingly, lived dialogue.
Almost every shot artfully embodies a feeling or characteristic: tenacity, in the way Inez paints Terry’s bedroom after she struggles to find a job and a small apartment; loss, in how she views her incarcerated former lover, Lucky (William Catlett); desire, in the family that their marriage creates; vulnerability of steel, as Inez strewn her apartment with buckets after the new white landlord ignored their demands to fix broken pipes. But aside from Taylor’s searing performance, there’s little connective tissue between them; what could be a punch ends up feeling aimless and superficial.
The film blossoms over time, in line with Terry. The confusion of 1994 fades into 2001, when 14-year-old Terry (Aven Courtney) shows promise at school and questions his background, and then into 2005. Until about halfway through, the child is more of a plot than a character (save for a montage of the six-year-old trying to entertain himself when left alone on a summer day while Inez is working, the moment most viscerally painful of a film that has tried much harder, at other times, to pull on the sensitive chord). It says nothing but the heavy anvil lines needed to provoke adults – why are you still leaving me? Where is my father? Was I wrong? The more Terry becomes a curious, confused, and hurt person, as he does in the hands of Josiah Cross, playing him at 17, the more propulsive and emotionally charged the film becomes. And the more you worry about his safety from the forces around him – gentrification, self-centered and soulless school counselors, New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, among others.
Taylor goes out of her way to make up for a subscribed storyline that, in the end, veers into melodrama with vague motivations. In her first screen role, she plays a hot and difficult character – combative and hardened, quick to express love and motherly affection through anger and reprimand, fiercely loyal but naturally bitter and lonely. His acting can feel overly paced at times, but it’s hard to imagine the film functioning without his gravitational pull.
A Thousand and One is ultimately the most successful as a portrait of an ever-changing and ever-at-war New York. Yue’s camera work and Rockwell’s eye for the vitality and vulnerability of marginalized communities add richness where individual scenes do not. Audio montages showing the passage of time – snippets of speeches by mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, among others – cleverly convey the backdrop of Inez and Terry’s arc without obscuring it. It’s moving and devastating enough to understand the peril Terry faces every time he walks down the street, or why Inez almost vibrates with stress under the stop and frisk, without pandering to sheer tragedy and simple.
This is a case where the practical quality of the film works in its favor. In many others, his curvy, moody ways are not. There are many things that work well in Rockwell’s debut, including Taylor’s performance lead, but the end result doesn’t match his character’s formidable strength.