Since times of enslavement, it’s been up to Black women to piece together homes for their children— homes often made out of nothing but full of love. A.V. Rockwell’s profound debut feature, A Thousand and Onecenters on 22-year-old Inez (an outstanding Teyana Taylor). Set in the early ’90s, Inez has been recently released from prison and thrust back onto the streets of Brooklyn. Determined to stop the scheming that got her incarcerated, she tries to restore her relationship with her timid 6-year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola). After being abandoned on the street corner and pushed into the foster care system, Terry is initially distrustful of his mother. However, after he has an accident in his group home and lands in the hospital, the aspiring hairstylist decides to kidnap her son out of the foster care system, determined to give him the home she never had growing up.

With a vicious attitude and a fierce determination, Inez smuggles Terry uptown to her native Harlem, where she begins to piece together a life for them— a life formulated on a false birth certificate and social security card for Terry. The young boy is also introduced to Inez’s recently released on-again, off-again boyfriend Lucky (Will Catlett), who becomes the only father Terry will ever know. Told over 15 years from 1994 to 2005 in a rapidly gentrifying New York City, A Thousand and One is one of the most breathtakingly honest films presented in a long while. 

Over the decade and a half, Rockwell welcomes viewers into the home that Inez, Terry, and sometimes Lucky have built. In 2001, 15-year-old Terry (Aven Courtney) is reluctant to test for the specialized prep school that Inez and his guidance counselor desperately want him to attend. A handful of years later, nearly 18-year-old Terry (Josiah Cross) finally gets the courage to approach the young woman he’s had a crush on for years. All the while, the mother/son banter that he and Inez formulate serves as a foundation for the film. Moreover, Lucky’s soft stoic energy and life lessons lead Terry into manhood even when he’s not physically present in the home. 

Money is never plentiful, Inez’s relationship with Lucky is increasingly tumultuous, and the fear of losing her Black son often suffocates Inez. However, she holds together the family she’s built with sheer will and determination, even when she feels it costs her sanity. A Harlemite herself, Taylor is exceptional as the unapologetic mother determined to give her son a different path even if she can only give him the sharp edges of herself. As Inez tells Lucky in one scene, “Damaged people don’t know how to love each other.” 

Terry grows up to be a quiet but brilliant kid. However, with college applications and new job opportunities requiring official paperwork and gentrification quickly displacing everyone around them, Inez’s long-held secret about getting Terry back into her custody threatens to shatter everything they built. A Thousand and One is a character study of one woman’s choices, her love for her son, and the countless obstacles she encounters just getting through the minutia of her life. It is vivid and gutting. 

With the whole truth about her choices laid bare, Inez makes no apologies, and quite frankly, why should she? She encounters impossible odds to give Terry a fighting chance at a decent life, and no one has made it easier for her. As she tells her nearly grown son toward the film’s end, “The only people who care about Black women is other Black women, and even that shit gets murky.” 

A Thousand and One premiered Jan. 22 at Sundance Film Festival. It will be released later this year via Focus Features.