A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature “A Thousand and One,” tells the story of a young mother named Inez (Teyana Taylor) who loses her child after serving a brief stint in prison. Her son Terry (played by three different actors at various ages) was put in foster care where he remained until Inez, released from lock-up, kidnaps him so they can start over. Racism and gentrification are layered into the early 90s drama centered on the strong mother-son bond. A remarkable film by Rockwell featuring a breathtaking performance by Taylor.

Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adelota) is only 6 years old when we see him hanging on a Brooklyn sidewalk with friends. He’s quiet, introverted, and refuses to look at his mother, twenty-three-year-old Inez when she comes up to him to say hello. Understandable. He was only four when she was sent away to Rikers Island for boosting. “I’ma be around here for good now. You hear that, T?” she asks, he remains silent. All “T” knows is that his mother abandoned him. In his mind, she just left him on a street corner.

While Inez looks for work as a hairdresser, she runs into Terry’s friends and asks about her son. She’s told that he fell out a window running from his foster mother and is in the hospital. Upon visiting her son, they begin to reconnect after clearing the air about abandonment, and in a great scene that only lasts a few seconds, we watch Taylor using just facial movements and gestures to convey the conflict swirling in Inez’s mind as she struggles to decide how to handle the situation. “Would it make you feel better if you came to stay with me?” she asks, followed by, “Just for a couple of days?” Cautiously Terry answers “Yeah.”

Peppered with 90s era Hip Hop and 70s funk, including Wu-Tang Clan’s “Shaolin Brew,” Detroit Emeralds’ “Til You Decide to Come Home,” and Eloise Laws’ “Ain’t It Good Feeling Good,” the story moves forward as Inez and Terry head to Harlem to lay low now that she’s on the run for kidnapping her son. But this is not a fugitive tale, there are no overzealous detectives chasing down the mother-son duo. In fact, Rockwell sidesteps that angle altogether as the film remains focused on family and Terry’s coming of age.

At first, Inez relies on her old friend Kim (Terri Abney) to take them in, but it doesn’t last long since Kim’s mother (Delissa Reynolds) disapproves of Inez’s past. Back on the streets with nowhere to go, Inez comes across an ad for a one-bedroom apartment in a shared brownstone for only $350 a month. She snags it and with Terry’s disappearance making the news, she gives her son a new identity, “Daryl,” while hitting up a friend for fake papers so she’ll be able to get her son into school.

Eventually, Inez’s ex Lucky (a very good William Catlett) shows up after he’s released from prison. One day after school Terry walks in to find the strange man sitting on their couch. “Lucky is going to be moving in with us” states Inez. “For how long?” asks Terry, causing Lucky to chuckle, “Damn. Little n—- trying to kick me out already.” Lucky is cold at first, reminding Inez that the young boy is not his kid. She forces him to start spending time with her son leading to a few beautiful moments as the tough ex-con sheds his macho exterior. “You always this quiet?” he asks the boy. He answers, “Sometimes.” When Terry asks if he’s a mistake, thinking Lucky doesn’t want him around, “Luck” responds, “That’s not true. You’re a blessing.”

A decade goes by, Lucky and Inez are in a rollercoaster relationship, Terry, now played by two different actors (Aven Courtney as a young teen and Josiah Cross as a high school senior) is still a shy, introverted kid, but very smart. Cross, as the older Terry, in a mature performance becomes the film’s focal point in the final act. A girl enters the picture (Alicia Pilgrim), and a teacher with good intentions begins snooping into Inez and Terry’s past as life throws the family a curveball.

A.V. Rockwell, who wrote and directed the film, shows superlative prowess as she navigates the emotional and moving story while avoiding melodrama. That would be enough for most filmmakers, but she adds an extra layer to the story focused on the gentrification of Harlem.

The film opens during the inception of Rudy Giuliani’s run as mayor, who implemented the controversial “stop and frisk” policy that gave police the right to pat down anyone they suspected of committing a crime or “about” to commit a crime. This led to racial profiling and illegal search and seizure. In one scene, Inez reads a newspaper with the headline, “Giuliani on the Warpath.” Terry becomes a victim of the policy while Inez becomes a victim of the mayor’s rezoning tactics that forced many black people out of Harlem. Hair salons, restaurants, and small businesses were replaced by high-rise condominiums. You feel empathy for Inez and Terry dealing with the building’s new white owner who makes it impossible for them to live there by refusing to fix the dilapidated apartment. Over 32,000 black people were forced out of Harlem.

“A Thousand and One” is driven by the tenacious performance by Teyana Taylor who went from choreographing Beyonce’s “Ring the Alarm” video to starring in MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” to becoming a singer-songwriter and actor. She is phenomenal in what can be regarded as a breakthrough performance. Recipient of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, A.V. Rockwell gives us one of this year’s best films.

(4 stars)

Now showing in theatres and available PVOD

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.