Teyana Taylor as Inez in A Thousand and One in theaters now.
Teyana Taylor as Inez in A Thousand and One, in theaters now.Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Ricketts/Focus Features

Director A.V. Rockwell on Her Heartbreaking New Film With Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One

“I walked out of the theater and wept in front of people I barely know,”  said playwright Jeremy O. Harris when he announced the winner of the Sundance grand jury award in January. He was talking about A Thousand and One, an extraordinary first feature by the young writer-director A.V. Rockwell about a mother and son growing up in Harlem through the ’90s and ’00s. It stars Teyana Taylor in a breakout role, opens in theaters today, and is one of those movies that ardent fans of independent cinema fear is being crowded out by blockbuster bloat—a human drama, shot mostly on location, that manages to say something important about a changing city and about a Black woman making her way in it. A Thousand and One looks magnificent and authentically real—it reminded me of the great New York films of Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese—but its rewards are not chiefly visual. The characters of Inez (Taylor); her son, Terry (played as a 6, 13, and 17-year-old by three young actors); and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Lucky (Will Catlett), are indelible. Taylor, an R&B singer/choreographer/multihyphenate, is especially revelatory, embodying the role of a Black mother harboring a tragic secret about her son with uncommon force and naturalism. The emotional beats of A Thousand and One are straightforward—you see them coming—but the film is overwhelming. Like Harris, I had tears in my eyes at its end.

I spoke to Rockwell—who grew up in Queens, attended high school in Brooklyn, and went to film school at NYU—about where her movie came from.

Vogue: I was lucky enough to see A Thousand and One at Sundance, where it won the grand jury prize. Can you tell me what the experience of winning that award was like?

A.V. Rockwell: Oh, man. Sundance was a whirlwind. It’s just nuts, and it can be a turning point for any filmmaker. But obviously winning the grand jury prize was insane. The most special part was hearing what the jury had to say—Jeremy O. Harris spoke on behalf of all of them. His words were so pure and honest and heartfelt that you could really tell that this movie touched him on a deep, emotional level. I made the movie for people like him. I wanted people to be able to see themselves in these characters—so that was the real success. 

I know you grew up in Queens and went to high school in Brooklyn. Did you draw on your own New York childhood to tell this story? 

I always knew that I wanted to tell a coming-of-age story about my experience in New York and saying farewell to that time—just seeing the city change dramatically, seeing firsthand how gentrification was impacting communities of color and Black communities specifically, which felt targeted, like we were being erased from the city altogether. Knowing what was at stake, especially for a neighborhood like Harlem—which means something not only to New Yorkers but to Black identity in general, our heritage and our culture, and American history—to see it washed away was devastating. 

People often talk about the benefits of gentrification, but when you think about people who are the most vulnerable, like my characters, and you see them trying to gain a sense of home, gain a sense of stability and rebuild the bond of a family—and to see them get knocked down by a new thing that’s thrown at our community—this is the human price of gentrification.

Taylor as Inez and Aaron Kingsley Adetola as six-year-old Terry in the film.

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

The teenage character of Terry is admitted to an elite, specialized school in the film. I read that you attended Brooklyn Tech—did that experience inform the writing?

I did incorporate that. It was actually funny, when we were at the premiere, my mom kind of deadpanned at me [delivers a look and laughs] about the ways that I invoked that piece of my life. But I remember how excited we were as kids to hear that Brooklyn was gonna be, like, the new Manhattan, how it was the center of everything, the center of culture, the center of what was hip. But now as an adult and seeing how all that transformation took shape, I see that it was at our expense, you know? I see that it was our loss—and I think that’s what so much of this movie’s about.

I also want to say that this movie was intrinsically tied to my coming-of-age as a young woman in the inner city, as a Black woman. That’s a huge part of what defines Inez’s journey in the movie—why she does what she does, how she’s successful in expressing her love, but also in her mistakes too. I’m so grateful for how that’s been appreciated so far—audiences are really, really seeing that.

Writer-director A.V. Rockwell at her film’s premiere in March.

Photo: Marion Curtis / StarPix for Focus Features

Let’s talk about Inez. Teyana Taylor is amazing in this movie, but you must have had a moment casting her where you wondered, Is this the right person? She’d never taken on a lead role like this.

It absolutely was a leap of faith because when her name first came up, I was like, What? I’d never seen her in anything significant—she just hadn’t had a meaningful opportunity to showcase her range as an actress. I really wanted somebody who I thought had pedigree and talent and depth. On top of that I needed a truthfulness to come through—either she needed to have been this person at a certain point in her life or she knew this kind of woman in the world. To me, Inez is New York personified, you know? So I was looking for someone who was one of one. And when I got to Teyana’s tape—and she did read for the role—she stood out like a gem. That was so exciting for me. But it was scary too. This was my first movie, and there was a lot at stake, but I’m so proud of what we were able to accomplish.

Tell me what it was like directing Teyana. Did she need much from you?

It was all very intentional. We broke the character down, and we created colors and shades for who Inez is in different moments, how she transforms over time as she matures. We had a color for her humor, a color for her vulnerability. We had all these different ways of creating a shorthand between us. In addition to that, I made it clear from the beginning: I was like, “You are not Teyana Taylor.” [Laughs.] This is not a Teyana Taylor cameo. Because at the end of the day, she is a public figure. She is a celebrity. She’s a star, you know? And I didn’t want people to be like, Oh, this is just a musician in a movie. I was also like, Don’t put anything on your face that Inez wouldn’t use—get rid of all the facials and all the celebrity luxuries. She needed to transform and remember what it means to be back in Harlem and in the world of this kind of woman. So we did a lot—and she did a lot—and I think it all shows.

Will Catlett plays Lucky in A Thousand and One, here with Adetola on his shoulder.

Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Ricketts/Focus Features

This is really a movie about being a Black woman in New York, but it also has a vision of maleness in the character of Lucky, played by Will Catlett, who is Inez’s on-again, off-again boyfriend and forges a bond with her son, Terry. Can you talk about what you were trying to capture with that character?

Lucky spoke to me of the power of what it means when you show up as a man, the impact you can have on the shaping of another human being’s life. I really wanted to celebrate that because that’s a lot of what I see in Harlem: so many fathers carrying their kids on their shoulder, just a lot of beauty in Black fatherhood that we don’t see enough of on screen.

Can you talk a little bit about what you might be doing next? 

I’ve already started writing. I can’t talk about it just yet, but I’ve already started the process of writing and researching and developing ideas for what I wanna do next. I’m open to directing other people’s material as well, but for now writing is my path. I am a person that has a specific view of the world that I wanna honor. And so I just gotta keep telling stories from my heart and from my head and freaking ’em out, you know? Continuing to push as far as I can go.