EBONY’s April 2022 cover star soars as Inez, a young mother in 1990s, early 2000s Harlem fighting to give her son a better life.
Photographed by Keith Major for EBONY Media.
A Thousand and One‘s heroine Inez is not the young, Black woman Hollywood favors. She’s not super gangster, a gold digger, drugged out, promiscuous, or an absentee mother. Instead, she’s determined to “go to war” for her kid, doing whatever needs to be done to give him the opportunities she never had as a rootless child of the system and collateral damage of the fallout from the harsh realities of growing up Black and poor in 1970s and 1980s New York City.
“I felt it in my heart that this was the one that was going to show everybody what I really had to offer, a REAL true proper introduction of me as an actor.”-Teyana Taylor
Black woman filmmaker A.V. Rockwell, tells her story with astonishing grace. Not that of the supportive mother who has the next super-athlete or child genius. But, rather, the one of the everyday Black woman who makes a way out of no way to create the home she never had, manifest the opportunities she could have never imagined, and unleash the love she was never given. Those truths ground Rockwell’s self-proclaimed love letter to Black women and allow Teyana Taylor to soar.
“I see my mom, I see my aunts, I see all the different women that are around us and those who have come before us,” Taylor tells EBONY, just days before A Thousand and One’s release.
Black womanhood in all its complexities is almost never explored on screen. “It’s standing up for us and it’s showing the strength and it’s showing that we don’t fold,” Taylor says of the film. “It’s also showing the harsh reality of how we’re treated and how much we’re not all the way protected, how much we have to be in survival mode.”
From the beginning Taylor says she knew Inez was a game-changing role for her as an actress. “I felt it in my heart that this was the one that was going to show everybody what I really had to offer, a real true proper introduction of me as an actor,” she shares.
Taylor brought all of her to this introduction, even the impact of Harlem’s gentrification on her and other personal challenges. “I was six months postpartum at the time, going back home [to Harlem] and seeing how much it changed on top of losing a lot of loved ones, going to funerals during my lunch breaks, it was a lot,” she explains. “So then I have to go on set and put this all into Inez, but then leave Inez on set, and go home, flip the switch, and be supermom and leave all of that energy away from my babies.”
“I just don’t see this role making sense for anybody else. I think this was a God-written role for me. And now the whole world gets to see why.”-Teyana Taylor
Caring for Inez’s baby required Taylor to really stretch and show her range. “Because we didn’t really film in order, it wasn’t ‘oh it’s little Terry, then he’s grown up and he’s middle school Terry, and then he’s grown up and it’s going to college Terry. Imagine putting on [all these] layers and then peeling [them all] back [on repeat],” the “Gonna Love Me” singer explains. “That was a great challenge to have to go through because now dealing with three different Terrys, you’re dealing with three different Inezs; you got younger Inez, you got middle age Inez, and you got full grown Inez.”
But Inez isn’t just Terry’s mother. She’s also who she is and Lucky’s woman. The chemistry between Taylor and Love Is star Will Catlett as Inez and Lucky is electric in good and bad times. That she shares is largely intuitive. “We went in, and we knew what this role was, and we knew it was triggering. I knew as a Black woman it was just triggering in general. You see I’m a New York girl. I can come across as aggressive or spicy and that’s just who I am and then at one point people at another time can use it against me. So it was already a lot of things. It was a lot of Inez already within me. There were a lot of things that he could say that were already triggering and he knew how to get me there and I knew how to get him there.”
Being a conduit for Rockwell is also gratifying to Taylor. “This being her first feature, I’m so excited for her as another Black woman. I thought that was really, really amazing, especially as a director myself,” she says. “It was like working with a sister. It was like just a lot of Black girl magic happening.”
Not wanting to let her New York sister down was also a factor. “Knowing what this story meant to her and how personal it was to her I feel like it was my duty to, one, for her to be comfortable and knowing she could trust me with a role like this. This is her baby. Not only did she direct it, but she wrote it as well. So I commend her and thank her for trusting me with this role.”
By film’s end, Taylor says “you see a survivor” in Inez. What makes Inez so special for Taylor is her relatability. “Inez is within all of us. We may not be dealing with the same exact things that she’s dealing with, but that survivor and that hustler, that mother who’s willing to stop at nothing to make sure her kid has what they need, that’s within all of us. I know that’s what’s within me,” she says.
Back in January when A Thousand and One won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, she told EBONY, “I just don’t see this role making sense for anybody else. I think this was a God-written role for me. And now the whole world gets to see why.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.