An early draft of this review was originally published on December 21, 2023,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
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I thought a lot about Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning feature Moonlight as I watched A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One.

Both films are about how the odds are stacked against young Black boys in America, especially if they start in poverty or without the ever-presence of vigilant, resourceful parents. Both are about how the care of loving, faithful grownups can make all the difference.

And, fortunately, they’re both powerful and memorable stories.

Young Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) is blessed with the gift of a ferocious champion and protector in Inez (Teyana Taylor). [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

Still, much that made Moonlight engaging — the poetic imagery, the sumptuously colorful cinematography, the score — feels lacking to me here. The world according to Rockwell here is convincing in its hard and jagged realism, often dwelling in a cold, grim color scheme that immerses us effectively in a bleak world. But I found myself hungry for some visual poetry.

On the other hand, one of Moonlight’s most interesting challenges — the casting of three different actors to play young Chiron enduring trials of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood — works better for me in A Thousand and One. Here, three actors portray young Terry, who struggles with the hardships of poverty and school, while the longsuffering and passionate Inez keeps a firm maternal grip on his arm. I was distracted by Moonlight’s jarring shifts from one actor playing Chiron to the next; they seemed so strikingly different from one another. Here, I believed each chapter: Aaron Kingsley Adetola (playing Terry at 6), Aven Courtney (Terry at 13), and Josiah Cross (Terry at 17) work together almost seamlessly to create the illusion of a young boy defying the odds to become a young man with a promising future. I believe in Terry as a three-dimensional character, trying to trust Inez as she fights to save him from so many traps that doom so many black children in poverty, abandonment, and, eventually, addiction. I find Terry more compelling than Chiron primarily because he’s allowed to be so much more than a victim, more than just a figure for us to feel sorry for.

Teyana Taylor’s performance as Inez should be in every 2023 film-awards conversation. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

In fact, every performance in the film feels just right, making this film’s time-jumping world feel authentic at every turn. But the main event, as critics are declaring with almost unanimous enthusiasm, is the performance of Teyana Taylor as Inez. (A prediction I don’t want to make: Teyana Taylor’s name will be missing from the Oscar nominations, and that’s going to be hard to take.)

Taylor commands our attention every time she’s onscreen, covering the film’s substantial span of years from 1994 to 2005, a short history heavily accented with details about what New York’s mayors claimed about their city and what was really happening on the streets.

As we watch Inez assert influence in Terry’s life, steer him toward success in school, and struggle with the risks, rewards, and costs of coaching her boyfriend into becoming the father figure that Terry needs, the actors and the film’s dilapidated textures of the film’s mise-en-scène create an absorbing drama in an entirely believable world.

Until, alas, the narrative’s startling final turn. In the last act, Rockwell’s cinematic imagination gambles on a revelation that is meant to astonish us and break our hearts. And perhaps it will work for you. It does not work for me—not because I find the twist implausible. (On the contrary, I find it very easy to believe.)

 

Aaron Kingsley Adetola is irresistible as young Terry. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

No, the problem is that the film has not felt like a typical crowd-pleaser drama, or like a movie rigged to win Oscars… until suddenly it does, with late-breaking surprises that come to us in heavy-handed dialogue. A Thousand and One has done a decent job of showing instead of merely telling until that point. I just wish the last chapter could have been revealed more imaginatively, more cinematically, in ways that allowed us to participate and connect certain dots ourselves.

You know how cheated you feel when a TV detective in a poorly written murder mystery reveals the big Whodunnit and HowTheyDunnit, and you’re like, “Well, we didn’t have most of that information, so what have we been doing here all this time?”

I feel a little like that at the end of this thing.

As the waves of hardship and change keep coming, Inez clings to hope for Terry’s future. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

Still, that’s the only complaint I have about a movie that I still wholeheartedly recommend.

A Thousand and One casts a meaningful spell, taking us on a journey with characters we won’t forget, and tuning our attention in such a way that we will look a little differently at our own city streets, and listen a little differently when it comes to news about the extra resources that Black Americans need in order to break out of cycles of poverty that are not, and have never been, their fault.