ABOVE PHOTO: Teyana Taylor poses for a portrait to promote the film “A Thousand and One” at the Latinx House during the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP, File)
By Gary Gerard Hamilton
NEW YORK — Pulpits across America this past Easter Sunday were sure to be filled with pastors preaching the longtime adage that “God may not be there when you want Him, but He’s always on time.” If they’re in need of a witness, Teyana Taylor would surely testify.
“I just have random, random times of the day that I just have to stop and give thanks and give praise because this is everything I prayed for. And I had really long conversations with God and Him making me understand that the wait was not punishment; it was preparation,” explained the “A Thousand and One” actor.
“A Thousand and One,” the grand jury prize winner at Sundance this year, is A.V. Rockwell’s debt feature film. It follows a young New York City woman named Inez (Taylor) and her 6-year-old son, Terry, played by three actors at different ages, following her release from Rikers Island jail in 1994.
Inez takes her child from foster care without permission, and the movie tracks their ups, downs and hardships living in a tough and changing New York without much help, all while keep a low profile. But as Terry nears high school graduation, an explosive secret threatens to upend his entire world — and his relationship with his mom.
Known for her fashion, choreography and crafting R&B hits like “Gonna Love Me (Remix)”“Maybe” and “Morning,” Taylor, a former Ye (Kanye West) collaborator, shockingly announced her retirement from music in 2021 after feeling unappreciated by the industry. With all the acclaim and attention, it might be unimaginable to think of anyone else in the lead role, but she was far from a shoo-in, with only small roles or guest TV and film credits.
“If you see something of me, and I’m in a dance movie or I’m in a singing movie, it’s like, ‘OK, well, we know that. But can she deliver? Can she really deliver a character like Inez, someone so near and dear to (Rockwell’s) heart?’ So, it’s like she gave me the chance,” said Taylor.
A New York native from Jamaica, Queens, Rockwell grew up loving films by fellow New Yorkers Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. After studying filmmaking at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, she cut her teeth on short films.
“What got me up every day that I worked on this movie for the years that I did is how I wanted to reach people, heal people, connect people to each other. So, this signifies all of that and I’m very, very thankful for it,” said Rockwell, who also wrote the film.
“A Thousand and One” is far from a feel-good, happy ending story. Early on, Inez struggles to take care of Terry— as well as herself — a daily battle of barely making ends meet. It’s a reality Black women face each day: being treated as if they are invisible and left to figure it all out without assistance. “Protect Black women” wasn’t the rallying cry it is today when Rockwell wrote the film, but she shared the same sentiment.
“We spend so much of our lives fighting and protecting for everyone, but who’s fighting for us?” said Rockwell. “Who’s there for us in the ways that we want to feel unconditionally loved and supported and uplifted? And I think that we may have superhero-like qualities, but we’re still human beings. And I think that I wanted to use Inez’s journey to speak to that.”
Perhaps the most dynamic character in the film is the city itself. At times, the line between documentary and feature film seems blurred. As the movie travels through the mid-’90s into the early 2000s, Rockwell chronicles a rapidly changing New York during the Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg mayorships, accented by interspersing real audio clips and speeches. The film highlights how Black and brown citizens bore the brunt of the transition, including the controversial “stop and frisk” law, police brutality and gentrification.
The changing of neighborhoods is a microcosm of what’s happened around the country in recent years to longtime Black areas in major cities like Houston, post-Karina New Orleans, Brooklyn and Detroit. The film’s title is based on the Harlem apartment number where much of Inez and Terry’s life takes place.
“It was important to celebrate what makes Harlem unique, in addition to just celebrating what makes New York unique because I think that so much of this movie is about protecting that as well — protecting what is sacred. And I think Harlem is a neighborhood that means something, not only to New Yorkers, but to Black identity and heritage in general,” said Rockwell.
Taylor is currently in the early stages of prepping to star in Dionne Warwick’s biopic, handpicked by the legendary songstress herself. She also says making music again isn’t out of the question, stating it’s still her first love.
But she refuses to be boxed-in, likening her creativity to a Glade Plugin — you can plug her into any room and it will fill with air — acting is her current focus. She hopes the message of the film highlights Black women and children, among the world’s most invisible and forgotten, saying she can relate.
“At the end of it all, we’re Black women and we’re fighting to be heard and fighting to be seen, invited to be appreciated,” said Taylor. “I’ve had a lot of the same fights that Inez had: feeling invisible, feeling unappreciated, feeling unheard, feeling unseen.”
She adds: “I was able to channel all of that emotion and all of that hurt and all that pain into this woman. So, not only did she give me all of her, I gave her all of me.”
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