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Maternal Ache in 'A Thousand and One'

Our first contact with A Thousand and One is through the melodic and melancholic opening theme, composed by Gary Gunn. The tranquility conveyed by the music during the opening credits sets the tone for the obstacle-filled lives of the film’s characters, and we are immediately drawn into the lives of Inez and her son, Terry. Inez's series of personal misfortunes has resulted in Terry being placed in foster care, but she promises him that things will be different from now on. However, for them to be together, Inez is forced to kidnap her own child.

The film is filled with painstaking dilemmas, and as a viewer, it is difficult to take a side other than Inez's, even though what she is doing is not legally permitted. We understand her choice. The version of Inez we are presented with is that of a resilient and loving woman who does everything to protect her son, who is the most precious thing in her life. We can only relate to this character so quickly because of Teyana Taylor, whose remarkable performance gives her immediate passion and depth.

My first contact with Teyana Taylor was in Kanye West's music video for Fade. I didn't know her, but I remember commenting on her performance to my partner, who immediately proved that I know very little about the current music scene. She filled me in on my ignorance but was nonetheless shocked that I didn't recognize her. Years have passed, but I haven't forgotten that moment. When I started watching A Thousand and One, I expected to see Teyana Taylor the dancer or Teyana Taylor the singer-turned-actress. However, what I watched was a serious actress, a complete actress, with versatility, charisma, and convincing power, in all her facets.

Taylor could have gone for a more over-the-top emotional performance. It would have been easy, considering the story told, as a mother’s love is often presented as knowing no bounds. But Taylor as Inez is different. Even when she engages in some extemporaneous behavior, she quickly recomposes herself and goes back to her interior space. She is cold, rigid, and courageous, but is an identifiable product of her surroundings. She often suffers in silence. She doesn't know who she really is, but she always tries to be someone better than she was yesterday. Being able to portray that and convey it to the viewers at home is not easy, and I fear that when the year ends, A Thousand and One won't be seen by enough people for Taylor to receive the recognition she deserves during awards season.

In addition to Teyana Taylor, other actors contribute to the film’s genuineness. Unlike Inez, who is always portrayed by the same actress, Terry is portrayed by three actors at different stages of his childhood and adolescence. Although they all perform well in depicting the character's growth and evolution, I must specify that Josiah Cross, who plays the 17-year-old Terry, has the most emotional material to work with and passes the test with distinction. The same can be said for William Catlett as Lucky, Terry's stepfather, whom we don't know much about, but who subtly reveals who he really is and why he is, despite his flaws.

None of this would have worked if it weren't for the work behind the script and its confident direction. A.V. Rockwell is responsible for both, and she easily unifies those elements into a fluid and complementary vision. The script doesn't seek to overuse or sensationalize the dramas experienced by its characters. Instead of manipulating us into pity, it aims to tell a simple story that can happen in various parts of the world, in similar communities, giving it a very humane perspective. There is no rush to spell it out because she knows that the greatest strength of this story is how it immerses us in its realism and then delivers answers in its third act.

The social issues related to the neighborhood of Harlem and its limited opportunities – vis-à-vis gentrification, crime, racism, and the prejudices felt every day by its mostly Black residents – are always present and are an important part of this film, but they are never explored in a directly confrontational manner, similar to what we saw a few years ago in the excellent but different The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Inez, Terry, and Lucky's story is part of this ecosystem, but it could also be any other story, as the themes associated with it naturally intertwine, without any forced dialogue. The good and the bad are highlighted and felt in this vibrant community full of energy and good people. The film emphasizes that, rather than the community being a threat, it is a threatened community, attacked by its exterior. The family has highs, they feel comfortable, and they play and have fun in the streets. They are a family like any other, despite the tragic circumstances.

Even as it gradually warms us, there is lingering anxiety throughout the film that something bad is coming their way. Inez constantly lives with that fear and even says, "Something's going to happen. I can feel it." When the third act hits us like an arrow to the heart, I had anticipated part of it, but I never expected it to emotionally devastate me to the degree that it did. After this lesson of heartbreaking authenticity, I’m sure that I will never forget this mother and this son, and one day, I hope to see them well again.

A Thousand and One can be streamed on Peacock.




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