This piece contains spoilers for A Thousand and One.
One of the most powerful emotions driving A Thousand and One, A.V. Rockwell’s arresting drama about a young Black mother who will stop at nothing to stay with her son, is nostalgia. The movie, starring a heartbreakingly good Teyana Taylor as Inez, begins in mid-1990s Harlem and follows the growth of Inez and her son, Terry, through the early 2000s. Naturally, nostalgia contributes to the movie’s ability to draw you in—it’s a commodity so sought after that the filmmakers wanted to shoot the first half of the movie on analog film, eventually finding a way to emulate the look of film grain on digital. Nostalgia may buckle you into A Thousand and One, but the ride you take is one of emotional turmoil, beauty, love, and terror. Yes, terror.
A Thousand and One starts with a bustling, vibrant view of a Black New York City as Inez, a formerly incarcerated Black woman in her early 20s, reacquaints herself with life on the outside after a stint at Rikers Island. Inez walks down summer streets full of Black people; she sits on stoops doing other Black women’s hair. Inez finds Terry, who had moved to a different group home while she was away, takes him under her permanent care (kidnapping him, legally speaking, from the foster care system), and moves them to her former neighborhood of Harlem. The thing about any movie that follows a Black inner-city community from the ’90s into the 2000s, especially one incorporating audio of Rudy Giuliani’s promise for New York City at the start of his mayoral term, is that it will be a movie about change. A Thousand and One, maybe predictably, is a movie about a young, Black, semi-single mother who fights for things to stay the same, though everything around her is changing. At some point, Terry will leave for college, though the jury is out on how far he’ll go. Inez is hoping her on-and-off-again partner, Lucky (William Catlett), will stick around. Of course, the neighborhood is changing, too.
Toward the second half of the movie, A Thousand and One begins to drop some not-so-subtle hints that the characters’ beloved Harlem is gentrifying. After the second time jump, to Terry’s late teens—the film starts with 6-year-old Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), then jumps to 13-year-old Terry (Aven Courtney), then to 17-year-old Terry (an astounding Josiah Cross)—the Harlem we’ve come to know looks different. As Giuliani’s mayoral tenure ends, Michael Bloomberg’s NYC begins to peek through. More white people are moving into the building across the street, Inez begins to hear quick mentions of neighbors becoming former neighbors, Terry is constantly being stopped and frisked by a more belligerent NYC police force, and their building eventually comes under new ownership. When the new landlord knocks on their door—Jerry (Mark Gessner), a white man, seemingly in his 40s, all smiles and pleasantries—my stomach sank. This moment of the landlord simply showing up on their doorstep terrified me more than any moment in NOPE, Barbarian, Malignant, or Nanny. In fact, I could confidently say that A Thousand and One will be the scariest movie of the year, without having yet seen what else 2023 has to offer. When Jerry knocked, instantly the small audience at my screening shifted in their seats and sighed deeply, murmurs of “Oh, God” permeating the air.
There was nothing surprising about Jerry’s arrival, and it was clear where the movie would go from there, but it was still devastating to watch. At the hardest moment in Inez and Terry’s life (Lucky falls gravely ill; Terry is terrified at the idea of his academic success taking him farther away from home and the people he’s used to, while also facing the imminence of losing the only father figure he’s ever known), the mother and son fall victim to predatory practices orchestrated by the landlord to ensure their exit. In a move that hints at “renoviction,” Jerry promises to remodel their aging kitchen and bathroom for free. Then, once a crew renders everything that was previously working in their apartment inoperable, Jerry ghosts them. When Inez finally sees Jerry again, he apologizes for the mayhem—their apartment is now one big mess: their ceiling is leaking profusely, their shower and sink barely work—and says it will take a few months to fully finish the upgrade he promised. When asked what they should do in the meantime, Jerry suggests they move out, the mask of friendliness finally off.
A Thousand and One is not the first movie to take gentrification to task; 2019’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco noted an already changed version of the California city, following a young Black man as he attempted to reclaim a home that was taken from him. Spike Lee was calling gentrification out way back in 1989 with Do the Right Thing, when Clifton (John Savage’s character, donning a Larry Bird t-shirt) accidentally ran over Buggin’ Out’s (Giancarlo Esposito) new Jordans. This prompted Buggin’ Out to let out a tirade against the gentrification of his beloved Black neighborhood. Just a few years ago, fictional New Yorkers sang about the changing of Washington Heights in the film adaptation of the musical In the Heights. But none of them have showcased gentrification in such personal, deeply unsettling terms. Even 2021’s Candyman, which cites the gentrification of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green as the real monster, a breeding ground for the continuation of a long line of wrongs against Black men that result in supernatural comeuppance via Candyman’s hook hand, didn’t frighten me as deeply.
Home: What it’s made up of, how to keep it, and what to do when it’s gone, is what A Thousand and One seeks to explore. This is perhaps most evidenced by the title, which took me far too long to realize was the spelled-out form of Inez and Terry’s Harlem apartment number, 1001. Taking “home” away from the characters, whose relationship as we come to know it hinges upon this very place, is a devastating blow. It is the only constant, the only thing Inez was actually able to keep from changing, until she couldn’t. A Thousand and One may not be the only movie about gentrification, but it personifies it so closely—giving it a face and a name in Jerry, and watching it wreak havoc in very specific ways on individual people the audience has come to care for.
Inez and Terry are not particularly naïve—just unaccustomed to all the legal ways they can be taken advantage of, as the entire neighborhood seems to be. By not simply showing a neighborhood that is changing, but also particular examples of how longstanding residents are swindled out of their homes, how their vulnerabilities are further exploited to create that change, A Thousand and One paints one of the most helpful portraits of urban gentrification so far. It brings something that may feel abstract to some to the forefront. It evokes the rage and horror you feel when you hear about families being pushed out of their homes, or listen to a friend explain why they recently called 311. Knowing what is going to happen doesn’t make watching it play out any easier. It hurts deeply to know you can’t warn Inez, and soon, it’s too late.