Producers: Eddie Vaisman, Julia Lebedev, Lena Waithe, Rishi Rajani and Brad Weston   Director: A.V. Rockwell  Screenplay: A.V. Rockwell   Cast: Teyana Taylor, Josiah Cross, Will Catlett, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Terry Victoria Abney, Delissa Reynolds, Amelia Workman, Mark Gessner, John Maria Gutierrez, Adriane Lenox, Azza El, Alicia Pilgrim and Jolly Swag  Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: B+

Set against the backdrop of a changing New York City in the late nineties and early 2000s, writer-director A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature follows a mother’s determination to make a better life for her son despite the cards being stacked against her.  Anchored by a fiercely committed performance by Teyana Taylor, “A Thousand and One” combines a searing domestic drama and the larger socio-political context against which it occurs with skill and insight.

Inez (Taylor) is introduced in 1994, just having been released from prison.  Returning to her old neighborhood with plenty of attitude, she notices on the street six-year old Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) among a group of foster children, and approaches the wary boy, who recognizes her as his mother but has little to say to her.  Later he tries to escape his foster home and is injured while climbing out a window.  Inez visits him in the hospital, and, stunned by his accusation that she’d abandoned him, impulsively takes the child away with her. 

After spending some time with an old friend, Kim (Terri Abney) and her censorious mother (Delissa Reynolds), Inez finds her own place and makes a life for them, working as a cleaning woman while also relying on her skill as a hairdresser.  Knowing that both she and Terry could be in serious trouble if the authorities identified them—after all, he’s still a ward of the state, and she’s a kidnapper—she secures fake identity papers for them both.  Eventually they’re joined by her erstwhile boyfriend Lucky (Will Catlett), just out of prison himself, who’s not exactly thrilled about being a dad to a child who’s not his.  But despite his flaws—infidelity among them—he and Inez get married, and he takes on the responsibilities of husband and father, though he and Terry are never especially close.

Terry grows into a thirteen-year old (played by Aven Courtney) who pals around with loquacious Pea (Jolly Swag) and gets infatuated with Simone (Azza El), the clerk at a local diner.  Three years later, and now played by Josiah Cross, he’s still interested in her (Alicia Pilgrim), but she’s moving on to what she hopes will be a better place, and he has options as well.  His teacher (Amelia Workman) is impressed by his academic abilities and seriousness and recommends him for an internship.  But accepting it requires his providing a birth certificate and proof of identity, and when he offers the phony documents Inez has kept among her papers, it results in the revelation of secrets she’s been keeping from him—including one that will surprise the viewer as well as him–and compel you to see the story in any rather different light.  The notion of it taking a village to raise a child might just seem strikingly appropriate.

As the story of mother and son plays out with subplots that add texture—like Lucky’s falling seriously ill, and Inez dealing one of his mistresses and the woman’s child at his street wake—we watch the city changing around them.  Rockwell uses audio clips of speeches by Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg to illustrate the sort of change both politicians promise, and then shows the realities they actually bring—as in a brief scene in which Terry and Pea are accosted by cops implementing a “stop and frisk” mandate.  The culmination come when Inez’s new landlord Jerry (Mark Gessner) arrives with pledges of improvements to her apartment, only to use the work to make the place uninhabitable and force her out—the process of gentrification at work. One suspects that the title of the film refers not just to the street number of the building in which the apartment’s located, but to the fact that the tale we’re watching applies to a great many other locals as well.  (Curiously, while the archival footage used includes several shots of the Twin Towers, the events of 9/11 aren’t dwelled upon.)

Though Taylor is the heart and soul of “A Thousand and One,” her galvanizing performance always at the center of things, the three youngsters who play Terry bring warmth and nuance to the boy, and Catlett adds depth to a character the script refuses to treat in one-dimensional terms.  Among the excellent supporting cast, one might single out Gessner, whose smarminess represents phoniness at its worst, and Reynolds and Adriane Lenox as two older women whose demeanor indicates that they’ve seen how things are and are prepared for them take a turn for the worse at any time—versions of Inez in later life, as it were.

The sense of uncompromising realism is enhanced by the visually striking work of production designer Sharon Lomofsky, costumer Melissa Vargas and cinematographer Eric K. Yue, who eschew artsiness in favor of raw authenticity, and editors Sabine Hoffman and Kristan Sprague, who integrate the elements of wider context into the narrative strands effectively, though not without some jerky spots.  Gary Gunn’s music beautifully catches the moods of the neighborhood at the plot’s different time frames well.

“A Thousand and One” suggests the sort of work Lorraine Hansberry might have written were she alive today.  It’s an insightful, compelling work from a writer-director to watch, with a lead performance to match.