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‘A Thousand and One’ Had to Acknowledge Colorism In Telling a Black Woman’s Story

The Daily Beast 3/30/2023 Kyndall Cunningham
Photo by Nina Westervelt/Variety via Getty Images © Provided by The Daily Beast Photo by Nina Westervelt/Variety via Getty Images

Moviegoers have been taught to view films set in New York as “love letters” to the city, no matter how gritty or unflattering they may be. Blame Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, or any member of a long list of other New-York-bred filmmakers capturing the divine chaos and innate romanticism of the Big Apple.

But A Thousand and One, a new family drama set in Harlem—sure to be canonized among legendary New York cinema—resists such optimism about the ever-gentrifying metropolis. In fact, its writer and director A.V. Rockwell has described her debut feature as a “heartbreak letter” to her hometown, which she witnessed rapidly change as a youth.

“I loved the city so deeply that it felt like part of who I am,” the 34-year-old Queens native told IndieWire in January. “I felt like, OK, well, New York must not love me in the same way. I think that awareness of unreciprocated love and that feeling of being erased was a huge motivator for me.”

A Thousand and One depicts a young woman named Inez De La Paz (Teyana Taylor), who illegally takes her son Terry (played at different ages by Aaron Kingsley, Aven Courtney, and Josiah Cross) out of the foster system after she returns from a stint at Rikers Island.

Set between 1994 and 2005, we watch the pair navigate personal hardships and the injustices of Rudy Giuliani’s New York, including policing policies like stop-and-frisk, and rapid gentrification. We’re used to seeing the latter represented in mainstream media by the arrival of hipsters and expensive coffee shops. But Rockwell shines a light on the displacement of low-income people of color that’s required for such an event.

Beneath the film’s political overtones is a gentle and, in Rockwell’s words, “universal” portrait of a mother and a son who share a deep and sometimes uneasy love. We also watch Inez and Terry embark on individual romantic journeys, exposing a broader story about the complicated dynamics between Black women and men, including issues of misogynoir and colorism. All of this circles back to an overarching sense of loneliness that the audience experiences through Inez.

A Thousand and One has already received plenty of praise and one pretty big accolade: the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered in January. Recent winners of the award include the Oscar-winning Minari and 2021’s Best Picture winner CODA. Before Sundance, though, Rockwell was already well-recognized as a filmmaker to watch. She directed 2016 short film for Alicia Keys’ song “The Gospel,” a black-and-white video collage of women of color across New York. Her follow-up was the mesmerizing short film Feathers, about a safe-haven school for Black boys.

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With her most high-profile work to date, Rockwell joins a small list of Black women filmmakers, including Ava Duvernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Dee Rees, and Lena Waithe, who also produced this film, receiving the level of attention and acclaim required to boost them into the spotlight. (Although sustaining that position is another issue.) Opportunities to tell intimate, nuanced stories about women have historically been reserved for their white counterparts. That said, the novelty of Rockwell’s breakthrough success and the specific story she’s able to tell in her first theatrical movie isn’t lost on her.

Ahead of A Thousand and One’s theatrical release on March 31, The Daily Beast’s Obsessed spoke to Rockwell over Zoom about the challenges of making a period piece, casting Teyana Taylor, and the film’s heartbreaking reveal.

(Warning: Light spoilers for A Thousand and One below.)

Your previous project Feathers is set in a safe haven for a Black boys. In A Thousand and One, the Black characters constantly feel unwanted and unsafe. Did your previous film have any influence on making this one?

I don’t know. I wasn’t really coming from that. I had written this movie [Feathers] that was my love letter to Black men and boys. But I think, as I was coming out of that, I started to reflect, “Well, who’s done something like that for us [women]?” It’s not like I could think of a number of examples of Black filmmakers making that ode to Black women, as fully seeing us and fully having empathy for what our experiences are in the world.

I wanted to honor those women in my life. If I can make a movie for them, I can make a movie for the women in my life that have nurtured me, especially inner-city Black women that are often misunderstood and invisible in society, and also within our own communities.

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I feel like the marginalization of Black women is often reduced to whatever struggles their sons or male partners experience, because people are more attuned to struggles of cis Black men. I appreciated that Inez’s individual experiences were the main story.

I think so much of how we’re represented [is] a necessary evil. If you can get over what’s complicated about this woman, then she can support you on your journey. We're supporting characters for everyone else. And so I think so much of this movie, to your point, was just me saying the fact that we want to feel fully loved and not just needed.

Was there something about the dynamic between Black mothers and sons, or Black men and women more broadly, that made you want to center them in this particular story?

When it comes to the mother-son relationship, I was talking about it more in a universal way. So much of this movie does relate to dynamics between Black men and women. But the mother-and-son [relationship]—it’s for all mothers and sons. It’s also me recognizing how men relate to their moms and how that relationship impacts them, especially if they had relationships like Terry and Inez’s where there’s trauma there. There’s some discipline there.

I wanted to shine a light on that, particularly for moms that were either single moms or young moms, [who] are just somehow not able to fully support or give attention to their children the way they needed it, especially early on in life. And I wanted for these men to get more of a window into your mom's experience of life and what your mom's experience of the world was. We tend to over-idealize our parents. So having the opportunity to see her full humanity represented like this, the type of things that she had to go through, I was hoping that level of understanding could be healing.

Speaking of the dynamics between Black men and women, you wedge in commentary about colorism through Terry’s crush Simone (Alicia Pilgrim), who he seems uncomfortable expressing his desire for because she’s dark-skinned. Viewers can assume that Inez has dealt with that too. How crucial was it for you to represent that experience?

It’s incredibly important. I feel like I couldn’t narrate the story in the right way without that part being included because, over the course of the movie, you see her showing up for everybody. You see how hard she fights for everyone, how dedicated she is. But she never fully gets that in return. And I think women can relate to that across the board.

But I think for Black women, in particular, colorism plays into that experience. That was definitely part of my coming-of-age experience in New York. The love that was given to us was so conditional. The way colorism plays into that dynamic is really important. Even for Terry’s journey, seeing that play out with Inez and seeing that play out with his love interest, Simone–he’s being tested. He, as a young man is figuring out, who am I to the women in my life? Who am I to the Black women that have nurtured me? What kind of man am I going to be to them?

Teyana Taylor is absolutely incredible as Inez. Did you immediately have her in mind for the film, given her Harlem roots?

No. We didn’t know each other prior to this. Her name came up a few times early on. But I hadn’t seen a lot of examples of her as an actress or enough examples of what she can do. It’s a very demanding role. So the idea was thrown out, but I kind of overlooked it initially.

But she submitted a tape like everyone else. And by that point, I had seen so many women that, when she stood out, she stood out like a beautiful gem. I think that there was a very specific type of actress I was looking for. Not only did she need to have the pedigree to take on such a challenging role, but she also needed to have a truthfulness to her.

As a New York City woman, I was casting somebody that represented a New York City woman with a level of honesty, especially [for] inner-city New York City women, and not feeling that level of privilege. I think if somebody who didn’t relate to this person in real life or didn’t know this person in real life had taken on this role, it would have been another example of me just minimizing who she is in the world by saying, you’re not even good enough to be formally represented.

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How challenging was it to recreate this particular time period in New York? There are so many aerial shots of the city and all these changing storefronts.

Bigger than I thought because I lived in New York all my life. And I also lived in Harlem for a number of years. And so I had a strong sense of how I wanted to go about capturing the city in order to be able to use what was there and just build on top of that, which we did. But I think what made it enormously more challenging was creating this movie in the middle of COVID. We had to make sure that it was a safe set. It ate up, like, a million dollars alone out of the budget. Any movie that was being made during the time, that’s what you were up against. But it really made it hard to shoot in New York City. Our permits were so limited.

On top of that, you have all these COVID masks that you have to dodge in the background. Everyone has a mask on their face. Because of that, I had to develop a very specific language for the movie. We were very intentional about our locations, that we either used as our backdrop or built our set on top of. But the visual effects were very helpful. Sharon Lomofsky was my production designer. Obviously, Eric Yue, our DP, was very pivotal. And then Melissa Vargas, who did costumes—all those elements came together and made it a lot easier.

The movie ends with this big reveal regarding Inez and Terry’s relationship. To me, it only enriched the bond we had been watching for the entire movie. But it still seemed like a bold choice to make as a filmmaker. Were you nervous that plot point would upend or ruin the film for people?

I’m really happy that it resonated with you, because it was very nerve-wracking for me. I was just trying to protect how the story is built. And I think it’s all there. If you want to rewatch it, there’s hints that build towards how their journey ends. But I think that it was scary, because I didn’t know how people were going to feel about them and their relationship. I didn’t know if people would still feel connected to them, especially Inez—the choices she makes and the mistakes she makes and the very questionable decisions.

And I really didn’t know, [because I was] making the movie in a cave. You’re just around you and your collaborators. I think there’s things that feel more certain. The mother-and-son aspect, as I was finishing the movie, was the only thing I felt certain like that I thought people would resonate with. But I think I’ve been so relieved with the response we've gotten so far. It enriches how people connect to these characters.

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