A.V. Rockwell breaks down her Sundance winner ‘A Thousand and One,’ now in theaters

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'A Thousand and One' (Part 1)

It earned the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, joining an exclusive club of winners this decade that includes “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Whiplash,” “Minari” and “CODA.”

The indie sensation “A Thousand and One” opens Friday in movie theaters nationwide.

“It’s been incredible,” feature debut writer/director A.V. Rockwell told WTOP. “It’s definitely been a whirlwind for sure, but I’m just staying present. I’m staying grateful for all of it and just enjoying the moment.”

The gritty drama follows single mom Inez de la Paz (Teyana Taylor), who is released from prison and kidnaps her son Terry from the foster care system. Together, they try to reclaim a sense of home amid the gentrification of New York City.

“Inez has just gotten out of jail when we first meet her and she immediately tries to reconnect with her son Terry, who’s in the foster care system,” Rockwell said. “When we first find them, she is feeling at risk of losing him again, so she just impulsively decides to take matters into her own hands and abduct him. You see them rebuild their lives together, somewhat hiding in plain sight in a New York City that is rapidly beginning to change around them.”

Best known for her music collaborations with Beyoncé, Kanye West, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott and Doja Cat, Teyana Taylor has shown her comedic acting chops in Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Big Happy Family” and Eddie Murphy’s “Coming 2 America.” Who knew she could deliver this powerful of a dramatic performance?

“I needed an actress who could handle the demands of this type of performance,” Rockwell said. “By the time I saw Teyana’s tape, I had seen so many women that she really stuck out like a gem. It was so exciting, so pure, so raw and so honest. Just reading a few pages from the screenplay, you could tell that she really understood the psychology of this woman, including being a mom. She’s tough as nails, but she also had the ability to be vulnerable.”

It was a bigger challenge casting the role of Terry, requiring three different actors to play him at different ages, similar to Chiron in “Moonlight” (2016). Here, Aaron Kingsley Adetola plays Terry at six years old, Aven Courtney plays Terry at 13 years old and Josiah Cross plays Terry at 17 years old, delivering some heartbreaking scenes of raw emotion.

“It was a little bit of a puzzle,” said Rockwell. “I just wanted to be mindful of this little boy who starts off so withdrawn and so smart … but little by little as his life gets more stable and the apartment becomes a home for them, you see him getting space to just be a boy. Each of the boys do a good job showing him slowly but surely getting more self-actualized into the man that he is by the time we’re saying goodbye to him at the end of the film.”

As for the title, “A Thousand and One” refers to their apartment number, proving the adage that “home is where the heart is,” no matter your complicated family history or the changing neighborhood around you.

“The city is the third main character,” Rockwell said. “I really loved the idea of Inez being New York personified. What if the spirit of New York City is a Black woman? The way that inner-city women like Inez are seen reminds me of how New York was seen when we first see it in 1994. The way that she is pushed to change and be more palatable for people is the same thing that the city goes through. They both transform and are both tested.”

Rockwell is a New York native herself, born and raised in Queens before attending NYU.

“I loved ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘Crooklyn,’ ‘Do the Right Thing,’ ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ Those were my favorites as a kid, then as I began my journey into filmmaking, I expanded and gained new favorites like ‘Battle of Algiers,’ ‘Z’ and ‘Seven Beauties.’ … Especially the ones by Spike and Scorsese, before I even knew what filmmaking was as a career path. They gave me a sense of how to balance great art with entertainment — and have something to say.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'A Thousand and One' (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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