At the awards ceremony for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in January, the playwright and screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris took the stage to present the US dramatic competition grand jury prize to the film “A Thousand and One,” written and directed by A.V. Rockwell. “Never have I seen a life so similar to my own rendered with such nuance and tenderness,” said Harris, who served on the festival jury. Fighting back tears, he went on to praise the drama for being “real, full of pain, and fearless in its rigorous commitment to emotional truth born of oppressive circumstances.”
Rockwell recently reflected on the monumental win. “Jeremy’s words were a huge part of what made it so special,” she said in a phone interview. “The award wasn’t just a shiny thing I get to brag about. This award is a symbol of the way I was able to move people.”
“A Thousand and One,” in Boston theaters this week, follows Inez (Teyana Taylor), a young mother who kidnaps her 6-year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) from foster care. Navigating New York City as a team, the pair initially scrape by on favors from old friends. But the future looks brighter once Inez finds work as a cleaner and moves them into a cozy Harlem apartment. Eventually, Inez’s boyfriend Lucky (Will Catlett) enters the picture, and despite a series of emotional hiccups — the film spans a decade — the trio develop into a tight-knit unit.
“This is a story about family,” said Rockwell, 34. “Inez and Terry are two people that come from the foster care system, and they’re dying for a sense of home. They’re dying for family.”
“A Thousand and One” made waves after it premiered at Sundance. In Artforum, the critic Amy Taubin called the film “energetic, emotionally rich, vividly lensed, and directed with enormous confidence,” and Richard Brody of The New Yorker praised its “passionate panorama of political obstacles to personal achievement.”
The filmmaker Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), who served on the Sundance jury alongside Harris, said that the film reminded her of Ken Loach’s “Ladybird Ladybird” (1994), another drama that shines a light on the way society fails mothers. Rockwell’s cinematic language “is never formalistic or stagey, the camera is decisively there to capture the intimate struggle of the characters,” Hittman said via e-mail.
Set in the 1990s, “A Thousand and One” unfolds against a backdrop of social upheaval. Inez watches as her Harlem neighborhood is swallowed by gentrification. Police officers patrol the streets, carrying out their brutal stop-and-frisk campaign. And in order to enroll Terry in public school, Inez procures forged identification documents — a felony that puts them both at risk.
Periodically throughout the film, Rockwell pulls back the camera to survey Harlem from above. She pairs the birds-eye images with audio news reports — some that were drawn from archival sources — describing governmental policies from the period, such as Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s crackdown on jaywalkers. Implicating Giuliani and Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the destabilization of Black communities “was always something that I envisioned for the film,” Rockwell said. “I did like the idea of them having this odd presence over the city, kind of speaking to all the citizens at once.”
A native of Queens, Rockwell fell in love with film as an art form during her time at New York University, when a study-abroad program introduced her to European cinema. But Rockwell had her first taste of directing years before that, when she oversaw original stage plays in high school. Even then, she recalled, “I knew that directing was something that I could see myself sticking with.”
Her talent for the form is evident. Prior to “A Thousand and One,” Rockwell wrote and directed a number of short films including “Feathers,” which tells the story of a group of Black boys dealing with psychological trauma. The short premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018, was acquired by Fox Searchlight, and received an Oscar-qualifying run that year.
When she was coming up as a filmmaker, Rockwell remembers only a handful of examples of Black women directors achieving success in Hollywood. Recent years have offered a modicum of hope, although Rockwell hesitated to call it progress. “I think that it’s the beginning of a shift, and I think that, optically, it is very beautiful to see that,” she said.
“The thing I try not to do is get too wrapped up in it, because it is optics,” she added. And statistics still show underrepresentation.
Rockwell currently lives in Los Angeles, but she still feels a complex connection to New York City. By setting “A Thousand and One” during the era in which she grew up, she was able to recreate a kind of bygone idyll. The Harlem on display is one that hosts block parties, celebrates events communally, and generally looks out for one another. When Inez and Lucky celebrate their union, they do so on the sidewalk, surrounded by friends and neighbors. “In Harlem, there are no backyards,” Rockwell said. “Yes, these are city blocks, but that’s their neighborhood,” she added, and emphasized that Harlem’s liveliness is part of what makes it special.
These days, gentrification has quieted the neighborhood, and that defining Harlem energy is “a lot more pocketed,” Rockwell said. It’s a pervasive process that we see beginning during the time frame captured in “A Thousand and One.” In many ways, Inez’s fight to protect Terry mirrors Harlem’s battle to preserve its spirit.
In “A Thousand and One,” Inez encounters plenty of stressors, yet a major source of psychic pain is her relationship with Lucky. Despite Lucky offering stability for Terry, Rockwell believes that Lucky “only sees Inez through the lens of what he needs. She’s a supporting character, in his belief. And I think that that is the story of so many women, especially Black women.”
Though Inez is a courageous character, Rockwell was hesitant to frame her as a hero. “I think now, culturally, everybody is talking a lot more about honoring Black women, and the way we are matriarchs, and the way we stand up for ourselves and our communities,” she said, “but we still are human beings at the end of the day. And we don’t want to feel like we’re only there to put a cape on.”