Monday, May 20, 2024

We embed with Inez (Teyana Taylor) in a Rikers Island cell as she prepares to do a fellow inmate’s hair with all the seriousness of a surgeon. Once released, her criminal record exiles her from work at beauty shops, but Inez hustles up gigs, cutting on the stoops of a Brooklyn brownstone and trying for a reunion with her 6-year-old son, Terry. “T” is in foster care and believes Inez abandoned him. When she learns T has had an accident and is in the hospital, Inez absconds with him and they run away to Harlem. With nothing but a few bags of belongings, she quietly and steadily creates a home life in which T can thrive. The film takes place over three periods – 1994; 2001 before 9/11; and five years later – with T played by a different actor in each, though most notably by Aaron Kingsley Adetola.

Making her feature filmmaking debut, A.V. Rockwell took home the Grand Jury award at Sundance with this fresh portrait of the Black experience. The film has the intimate, lived-in texture reminiscent of the work of Kore-eda Hirokazu (“Shoplifters,” “Nobody Knows”). If he was born a Black woman in New York City and had a desire to remix classic Hollywood women’s films such as “Stella Dallas” (1937) and “Mildred Pierce” (1945), you’d have “A Thousand and One.” 

Taylor’s performance, underscored by her ability to project conflicting emotions, is also worthy of comparison to Joan Crawford in “Pierce.” The classic antihero mother who sacrifices everything for her son, Inez learns eventually how to suppress her instinct to lash out against perceived slights and become a more gentle, loving parent – and Inez’s closing speech is as rousing as Faye Dunaway’s boardroom speech in “Mommie Dearest” (1981). 

Like the iconic painter with the same surname, Rockwell’s visual style captures vibrantly the essence of each of the three periods. The urban landscapes segue from the primary colors of the 1990s to become cooler and more muted as gentrification and commercialism encroach. Another  threat to Inez’s opportunity for advancement and a safe place for her son comes in the form of police brutality. To anchor each scene in its corresponding era, Rockwell employs long shots of the city skyline with news broadcasts of the time. They include mayor Rudy Giuliani’s war on the people of New York through stop-and-frisk and iconic moments of police brutality: the rape of Abner Louima and extrajudicial shooting execution of Guinean student Amadou Diallo. 

In a city where the war on crime has ebbed and flowed for better and, in many cases, worse, Inez commits the biggest crime of all – successfully raising a Black boy. The best revenge is living well, and Inez, a criminal mastermind, rejects the laws of this world and their condemnation to navigate life on her own terms. During her final scene, she appears triumphant and as indomitable as in the beginning: Her hair is slicked back, her makeup is flawless and her clothes are sharp and fit perfectly, a reflection of how she made her own American dream outside a system that dangles it without granting access to it.