A Woman First: ‘A Thousand And One’ Movie Review

By: Stephane Dunn, PhD, MA, MFA 

In the past twenty years, traces of old tropes have melded into new ones of Black women in popular culture. In the 2000s, Black male actors/comedians elevated their visibility in cinema playing parodies of “Big Mama.” In the 90s and beyond, a spate of urban centered Black films featured limited characterizations of Black women living in the so-called hood. The texture of their desires, critical thinking, ambition, vulnerability, daily life, emotional range, work, family roles, and identities were too often reduced to one or two staple types and surface representations of their dress, ways of talking, and secondary sexual roles as bitchy or needy, materialistic girlfriends or baby mamas. Set against the backdrop of a gentrifying Harlem, the A.V. Rockwell directed A Thousand and One, features a masterful performance by Teyana Taylor as Inez that challenges this limited portraiture while speaking beyond categories of race and class.

Before Inez becomes a struggling mother, she is a young woman seeking self-actualization. She’s come up the hard way as a foster child, which fuels her choice to be a mother to her son. She seeks and wants romantic and family love as well and that too is of course a rocky enterprise. Yet, as the years pass and Inez does what she must to ensure her survival and her son’s future, she does not merely dissolve into her maternal role. She doesn’t accept the status quo in suffering silence. Indeed, Inez offers such stunningly real talk about making ends meet, mothering, her own devastating personal choices, loving, and sexist notions about how she should behave and speak, that I watched the entire film, my son beside me, and an audience of mostly Black women including Teyana Taylor, on the verge of somewhere between a sigh and tears.

A Thousand and One provokes thoughts of a significant though underrated canon of films – most by Black women directors that place the subjectivity, gaze, complexity, and intimate vulnerability of Black girls and women as the guiding center of the narrative. In that, A Thousand and One joins recent entries, The Woman King and Till, Rahda Blank’s 40-Year-Old Version with other unique classics – Julie Dash’s sublime Daughters of the Dust, for example. A Thousand and One has notes of the 1974 classic Claudine, starring Diahann Carroll, but it certainly isn’t a retooled modern take on Claudine either. In Rockwell’s film, Taylor’s Inez admirably shows the potential layers we may have gotten in the earlier film with the artistic, political consciousness of a Black woman storyteller-director. 

Cinematically, A Thousand and One approaches what we luckily find in a treasure trove of diverse Black women centered urban novels – think Ann Petry’s The Street, Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, and Sapphire’s Push. Taylor says that experiencing personal grief and vulnerability along with returning to her home roots in Harlem helped her inhibit Inez. Then she had to slip out of Inez daily and put on her superwoman “cape” and the “mask” to mother her two daughters, attend funerals, and grieve with friends and family. 

When she says being Inez was “easy” in that wonderfully authentic way in which Taylor speaks on the regular, she means that the emotional range and demands required to play Inez provided the space for her to pour her own vulnerability into, to take off the cape for the six weeks of filming. Award talk inevitably comes with such a standout performance and words like Oscar are being referenced, but there’s a historical and continuing superficial, disappointing unevenness when it comes to nominations and awards. Luckily, Taylor’s performance marks a memorable turning point in her career, and Rockwell’s A Thousand and One is a sure bet for entry onto future lists of African American and women’s best films. 

Stephane Dunn, PhD, MA, MFA is a writer, filmmaker, and cultural critic and author of Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (2008), Chicago ’66 (2020) Finish Line/Tirota Social Impact Screenplay winner) & the novel Snitchers (2022). She is a professor of film and English in the Morehouse College Cinema, Television & Emerging Media Studies (CTEMS) department. Her work has appeared in a number of publications including, The Atlantic, Vogue, Ms. magazine, Chronicle of Higher

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