For A.V. Rockwell, A Thousand and One was the result of a lifetime of heartbreak. The movie — her debut feature — is the filmmaker's response to feeling pushed out, to being overlooked, to never seeing Black women like herself or those around her represented in the breadth of their humanity on-screen. So imagine her surprise when the film won Sundance.
"That was just surreal," says Rockwell, now two months after returning from Park City with the Grand Jury Prize. "There aren't a lot of things that actually shake me up, but I was just so blown away."
The gritty New York drama begins in 1994 and follows a young mother, Inez, as she returns home to Brooklyn following a bid at Rikers Island. Hoping to start life anew with her 6-year-old son, Terry, she kidnaps him from the foster care system and absconds to Harlem. Ending in the year 2005, A Thousand and One is a coming-of-age story of mother and son, as they fight to find a place for their family in a rapidly gentrifying New York City.
The Queens-born and raised Rockwell knows that gentrification intimately, having grown up watching the Black families who built her borough in the '70s and '80s be pushed out over the decades that followed. "It felt like we were being erased altogether," she remembers. "It made me feel a level of pain when I thought about my coming of age, feeling like, 'How does it feel to know that this city that I love never loved me?'"
Set against the backdrop of a historically Black neighborhood, Inez becomes "the face of gentrification." Rockwell was intentional in writing her as a woman of color, and more specifically an underprivileged, inner-city, single Black mother — the type of woman she saw firsthand suffer most under gentrification and be made to feel misunderstood and invisible in larger society.
"Even though she's fighting for everyone else, who is really showing up for her?" Rockwell asks. "Who's really seeing the humanity of her? Is the man that she's raising going to be the type of man that is going to grow up and fully see the humanity of this woman? She's not just his mom. She's not just a supporting character in his journey. She is a full human being, and somebody who needs to be fully loved, not just needed. I think I wanted to be able to say that on behalf of Black women in general."
A Thousand and One is "autobiographically honest," says Rockwell, but not autobiographical. "Obviously, I didn't abduct anybody," she adds wryly. "A lot of this is not mine, but I think it's very emotionally true." She pulled from and shaped Inez's journey based on experiences of the women in her life ("there's so many things that Inez goes through that all women go through") while also peeling back layers of Black womanhood she felt hadn't been fully explored yet.
"Black women give so much to our families, and so much to our partners and our children, and the way we feel like, 'No matter what I do to fight for my family and to fight for my community, we still do not feel like we're enough,'" Rockwell explains. "I felt it would be incomplete to tell a story about what it means to live in her shoes — in our shoes — and not address that. Here we are, standing up for everybody else in ways that are unconditional, but to love us comes with so many conditions."
The exacting specificity with which Rockwell wrote Inez de la Paz on the page made casting the role that much more difficult. She knew she needed to cast an actress who could fully immerse herself in the character, instead of just playing her for the camera. "To cast somebody who wouldn't have related to her would've been to say, again, that you were still not good enough to be the hero in your own story."
She eventually found her Inez in Teyana Taylor, an R&B performer, dancer, choreographer and actress in her first leading film role. Rockwell admits she wasn't immediately convinced of Taylor upon learning she'd submitted an audition tape. "I was like, 'Huh?' Because I knew her as a celebrity. I knew her as a musician. She had done some work in motion pictures, but barely." But watching her audition, Rockwell says, "I felt like, even just with a few pages, she really understood this character. She was so raw and pure." As it were, Taylor happens to be a native New Yorker, born and raised in Harlem.
Taylor won the role, with one request from her director: "I was like, 'Your skin is gorgeous. I'm sure you get the facials weekly, or whatever you do.' I was like, 'Don't do anything while you're preparing for this roll that Inez wouldn't. Don't use a bar of soap that she wouldn't, a fragrance, a moisturizer.' I really, really just made sure that she was fully committed."
On-screen, Taylor transforms into Inez at 22, freshly out of prison and ready to put the past behind her, with the steely toughness of a woman ready to take on any of life's obstacles. She transforms again into Inez at 29, entering more emotionally complicated territory as a mother (Terry is played at ages 6, 13 and 17 by the actors Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, and Josiah Cross) and a lover (William Catlett co-stars as an ex, Lucky, who re-enters the picture). And she transforms again into Inez in her 30s, who, worn down by the world, sees the secrets from her past finally catch up with her.
"She fully went there," Rockwell says. "And once she did go there, she didn't complain."
A Thousand and One debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Sundance jury member Jeremy O. Harris said of the film, "Never have I seen a life so similar to my own rendered with such nuance and tenderness. I walked out of the theater and wept in front of people I barely know, because this film reached into my gut and pulled from it every emotion I've learned to mask in these spaces."
"What Jeremy had to say on behalf of the jury, it was so pure, and personal, and specific," says Rockwell. "The way that it resonated with them, it showed that, 'Okay, everything that I went through in order to get this story made...'" Tears spring to her eyes and she groans. "Ugh, I'm getting emotional."
Rockwell made this film as a love letter to Black women, but never expected to get that same love back.
"I made it for the people," she says. "If I'm holding an award, I want it to symbolize how the movies that I make are resonating with people and making them feel seen, or making them see the world in a more enriching way than they did before walking into the theater. That was the greatest win for me. And wanting to celebrate a group of people that felt so invisible, and so pushed out and overlooked — to see them be given this platform by the movie being given a platform was really special. Yeah, I was just grateful for that."
By John Boone