“I just wanted to honor us, honor the Black women in my life,” A Thousand and One writer/director A.V. Rockwell shares. And that energy is evident in every frame of her debut feature film about Inez, a young mother in 1990s, early 2000s Harlem raised in foster care fighting to give her son Terry better opportunities than she had. The film, starring Teyana Taylor as Inez, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, and Josiah Cross as Terry in different stages of his life, and Love Is star Will Catlett as Inez’s partner Lucky, adds new layers to a genre that almost never centers Black women.

Will Catlett and Aaron Kingsley. Courtesy of Focus Features.
Teyana Taylor. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Inez is a flawed mother and woman who loves through her faults, who just keeps going hard and never gives up, especially for her kid, against never-ending obstacles. “I definitely was thinking of my mom,” she says of crafting the story of A Thousand and One, adding intense research to lived experience. “I really wanted to celebrate her, but I was also thinking of the community of women that continue to do it.”

Surprisingly A Thousand and One, which Lena Waithe produces, wasn’t a story she knew she’d tell. Instead, it’s one basically sparked by her well-received short film Feathers. “That was my love letter to Black boys and Black men,” she says of the film. “I think after that project I realized ‘who’s writing love letters to us?’ I hadn’t really seen us honored by any male filmmakers in a way that I would have wanted.”

As much as Harlem native Taylor embodies Inez on screen, during a post-screening Q&A in Atlanta, the multihyphenate shared that Rockwell wasn’t convinced she was the right actress for the role. That Rockwell explains wasn’t a knock against Taylor, whose credits include Coming 2 AmericaHit The Floor, and Star. “It was huge act of faith to give a challenging role like this to somebody who I hadn’t seen a lot from, and you just don’t know with any actress,” admits Rockwell. 

Teyana Taylor and A.V. Rockwell. Photo by Keith Major for EBONY Media.

Because it was her love letter to women like her mother and many others, Rockwell says she needed a very specific actress. It was important for Rockwell to see an authenticity in “that she gets who this woman is, that she knows her as an auntie or somebody or it’s been her at some point in life,” plus she had to “feel like she represents a New York City woman.”

“I knew that to find that balance I had to cast a wide net because there were just no obvious names that came to mind that could have probably honored this woman,” says the native New Yorker and NYU alum. “Teyana read for the role, and I think, by that point, after seeing so many women, she definitely stood out in a way that was very surprising for me, because I hadn’t seen anything from her in terms of her body work as an actress.”

Josiah Cross. Courtesy of Focus Features.
A.V. Rockwell and a crew member on set. Courtesy of Focus Features.

It is who Taylor is that ultimately convinced Rockwell. “It was all there,” she says of her star. “You can tell that this is a woman who was using herself and her life experiences to really be a vessel. I think Teyana has such a deep wealth within her to give to this character, in terms of her experiences as a human being, as a woman, and, also, as a mom.”

Once she found her Inez in Taylor and her first Terry in Adetola, the rest of the casting, along with the recreation of 1990s Harlem, came much more easily. What emerges is an introspective film that digs into important backstories like “operating in the world, but also still privately living within our own traumas” in relationships, the aftermath of a generation who’ve gone “through a massive period of devastation, especially when we think about what the drug epidemic was,” and more she shares. 

Rockwell’s handling of gentrification is particularly adept. Absent are the sweeping judgements and grand pronouncements favored by other films. Her focus is instead on how slow and methodical the process is, how subtly it chips away at the fiber of the community until it becomes unrecognizable. 

A.V. Rockwell. Photo by Keith Major for EBONY Media.

“This is a movie about the potential erasure of communities like Harlem and what the impact of that is in a neighborhood that says so much about Black identity, our history in general, and the local heritage that we have in a country that has given us so little,” she shares. 

Of course, Rockwell isn’t naïve to the significance of her telling this story. “It was certainly a bonus to be able to use my experiences as a Black woman and as a filmmaker to celebrate us and to honor us,” she says. “I just wanted to be able to honor the Black women in my life that nurtured me and make them feel seen, specifically underprivileged and marginalized Black women,” she reiterates. “I really wanted their heroism to be celebrated.”

A Thousand and One is in theaters March 31st.

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.