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‘A Thousand and One,’ Gentrification, and Black Excellence With Teyana Taylor & AV Rockwell

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
Starring Teyana “Spike Tey” Taylor and directed by AV Rockwell, A Thousand and One opened in theaters on Friday, March 31st.

You’re familiar with that shortlist of iconic songs like Alicia Keys and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” and “Theme from New York, New York” by Kander & Ebb and made famous by Frank Sinatra that pay special homage to the Big Apple. From shows like Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, and Law & Order franchise to films like Do the Right Thing, The French Connection, and The Warriors have set the scene in capturing the city that never sleeps through a series of distinct lenses. But what gets increasingly swept under the rug in telling these tales is the experience of Black women in a mercilessly paced, whitewashed environment once romanticized as a true Mecca of Black excellence.

Right on cue, A Thousand and One — the feature-length directorial debut of AV Rockwell produced by Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani of Hillman Grad Productions — holds up a mirror to this world as it explores the nuances of gentrification in New York City through the eyes of young Black mother Inez de la Paz (Teyana Taylor) as she ventures to do everything she can to ensure her son’s future.

For Rockwell, assembling the vision of a rapidly gentrifying New York City during the late ’90s and early 2000s on-screen while allowing it to resonate with a 2023 audience was actually quite simple.

“At the end of the day, a lot of what happened then has impacted what’s happening now and I think there is power in looking at the past in order to talk about what’s happening in the present,” Rockwell told Boardroom about the tapping into both the rise and plight of the culture of her birthplace for the film. “Ultimately, in the way that I crafted the story, and Teyana [Taylor] showed up as Inez within it, it’s just reminding people of the fact that this is very much so a human story and about how what’s happening around us impacts our lives.”

Official promotional art for A Thousand and One via Hillman Grad Productions and Focus Features

In preparing for her directorial debut’s big premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Rockwell called the process of bringing the various components and impulses of the film together a demanding one, but then again, you can’t have diamonds without pressure. As the creative driver of the film, she notably described the production process as therapeutic while she unpacked her own thoughts about the people and places that have impacted her as a New York City native and lover of its people.

“I wrote this film in ways that I wanted them to see themselves, but obviously I’m very connected in [an] intrinsic way all of the material that’s within this story so, I think it was healing for me,” she said. “It really challenged me to show up in new ways and I’m proud of the ways that I’ve grown and will be able to take all of the lessons that I learned from making this movie into my future projects.”

Proud of the way that A Thousand and One challenged her as a director and storyteller, she knew that her first film would come to be something special — but who would have wagered that this film would snowball into a Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning phenomenon crashing the gates of the upper tiers of New York-centric films?

A Rose In Harlem

Inspired to tell a coming-of-age story about New York by her own experiences as a Queens native, Rockwell wanted to use the film as something of a final farewell to the city she once knew as she slowly watched its culture give way to the shifting sands of gentrification.

In her recognition of these forces specifically impacting Black communities in New York City and the erasure of so much of what made it a 1-of-1 place in the world, Rockwell wanted to award specific flowers to Harlem for serving as a Black Mecca that unapologetically cultivated heritage, identity, and American history at large.

“I think to lose that to gentrification and the policies that set the stage for gentrification was really devastating. I also hated the impact that it had on a community of people that have been marginalized and fought so hard over generations just to get the sense of stability that they have now,” Rockwell told Boardroom.

L to R: Teyana Taylor, AV Rockwell, and Dapper Dan attend a screening of A Thousand And One (Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for Focus Features)

“Gentrification was just something new that was just gonna knock us down; a new obstacle for us to overcome altogether and I think I was recognizing that fight,” she continued. “I also wanted to speak to and honor the inner-city Black women that nurtured and raised me and made me who I am today. If this was my heartbreak letter to New York City, I think it was my love letter to [Black New Yorkers]. I really wanted to use Inez’s journey to speak to this group of women that felt so misunderstood and invisible in society and within our own community, and make sure that I was telling their story in a way that people could really see what their experience was.”

As a Black woman herself, she was able to pull much from her own sincere experiences while recognizing that the experience of the Black woman in New York City isn’t monolithic. With that, Rockwell grew focused on amplifying empathy in order to position herself as the best storyteller she could be while painting a picture of a mother-son relationship on-screen that could address the pain of family and community dynamics with the sincerity and care it deserved.

“I think the city has been my muse in so many ways, and to see the city change and lose a lot of the pulse that made it such a steady, special city overall has just been disappointing,” Rockwell said of her hometown. “I don’t know what’s left for artists in New York City. I don’t know if it’s a city that feels accessible to artists, or people in general, if you’re not privileged. I feel like it’s only a playground for the privileged now.”

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A “Spike Tey” Joint

While we can still turn to films like Honey: Rise Up and Dance with Empire alum Bryshere Gray, Madea’s Big Happy Family for her infamous “Byron” line alongside Shad “Bow Wow” Moss, or even on television on Hit The Floor, Teyana Taylor notes that her role as Inez in A Thousand and One was a pivotal one for her career.

In fact, she deemed this latest turn in Rockwell’s film as her first serious role.

L to R: Iman Tayla Shumpert Jr., Teyana Taylor, and Rue Rose Shumpert at the New York premiere of A Thousand and One (Taylor Hill/WireImage)

“It was definitely challenging, but honestly, in the most beautiful way. Not only was it challenging, but it was definitely therapeutic, which was the first time for me,” Taylor, who attended the New York City premiere with her two daughters Junie and Rue, told Boardroom. “I had always done projects that were funny or different things like that, so this was my first serious role. Having to dive into Inez and find the different layers and the colors with AV and a lot of workshopping, it was really great to really dig into who Inez was.”

Rockwell admitted that selecting Taylor for the role of Inez wasn’t necessarily the obvious move, but she was moved by Taylor’s infectious spirit, drive, and talent to cast her as the protagonist. She knew that the “Bare Wit Me” singer would bring authenticity to the role, but she had no idea the force that Taylor truly was until she watched her audition tapes for the leading role in A Thousand and One.

“It was definitely a leap of faith. It was scary,” the director admitted.

After watching auditions from other actresses chasing the role of Inez, Rockwell identified something in Teyana that especially impressed and pleasantly surprised her — an ability to call upon her personal experiences and apply them to the character organically. From her status as a Harlem native to her life as a prolific working mother to two daughters, Taylor’s kinship with Inez allowed her to tap into a place that brought a level of humanity to the character that transcends a screenplay’s written words.

“I think she was able to connect in a way that was truthful, especially in representing a group of women that feel so unseen,” Rockwell said in praise of Taylor. “I could see her compassion for them. I could see the ways that she had empathy for them and that she would be able to honor this character and dignify her because of that connection, and that she was with them and not looking down at them. It wouldn’t be performative. I could see even in the early tapes when she read for the role that she understood the psychology of this woman, and she understood and she was gonna be able to access those layers and that collaboration would bring all that out.”

L to R: Teyana Taylor, Lena Waithe, and AV Rockwell at the New York Premiere of A Thousand and One (Nina Westervelt/Variety via Getty Images)

“Really you would see the force of Inez in her because I created this woman who I wanted to be a force of nature, even on the page,” Rockwell continued. “I was trying to celebrate the forces of nature in my life, so I think Teyana was the perfect storm of bringing all of that together. Now, she’s shaking the table for real in the ways that audiences are being blown away consistently.”

From Taylor’s perspective, there was no apprehension when it came to leaving it all out there on set when pouring herself into her character. As she dived into Inez mentally and emotionally, she didn’t think twice about going as deep as she could to bring multiple dimensions, angles, and layers to this woman who would connect with audiences — especially women — from the Five Boroughs to the far corners of the world.

“It was easy to pull because it was a lot to give. Inez is within all of us as Black women. No matter where we are in life, we’re all fighting to be heard. We’re all fighting to be seen, we’re all fighting to be appreciated. It was therapeutic for me because I was already dealing with things, dealing with being just six months postpartum and dealing with a lot of loss and loved ones. I had a lot of emotions to pour into something and I think getting into Inez and all of her different layers and colors gave me a platform and an outlet to pour everything that I was going through into Inez,” she said.

“Just finally be able to hang my cape up for a little bit and have that moment of weakness and inhabit in peace and [have] it become art, it really meant a lot to really get to dive into her.”