Anyone who’s followed the multi-hyphenate talent that is Teyana Taylor knows that she can easily chameleon when she needs to, from harnessing her sexuality for a music video to being painfully honest on reality TV. Most recently, she’s channeled the nuanced role of a single mother in New York on a complicated journey of redemption and the restoration of a family structure.
Taylor stars as Inez de la Paz in filmmaker A.V. Rockwell’s “A Thousand and One,” which hits theaters nationwide on March 31. The movie, which has already won a Sundance Film Festival award, offers a compassionate depiction of what it’s like for modern-day Black women raising children while battling financial strife, housing insecurity and mental health challenges. Rockwell peels back the many layers of Black motherhood in a manner that leaves even Black women examining just how deeply they’ve internalized stereotypes that shape their identities.
“It was so important to me that this character speaks for underrepresented Black women, specifically because I think that even though we are a community in which a sisterhood exists, in many ways, underprivileged Black women still feel the most ostracized,” Rockwell says.
The filmmaker, born and raised in New York City, uses the gentrifying landscape there as a backdrop to tell the story of a young, “free-spirited” mother who kidnaps her son from foster care and fights to raise him with very little money.
The intentionality of everything — from the era (’90s Harlem) to the main character’s distinct struggles — challenges the viewer to reevaluate what they think they know about disadvantaged Black mothers, ultimately revealing how we navigate motherhood despite shattered support systems. This is an essential story, especially at a moment when the lack of support for Black women is all too apparent in real life, in the form of still-surging maternal mortality rates and mental health challenges.
Rockwell tells me that when she conjures the sentiments of iconic Black films that came out in the ’90s, women like Inez were represented as two-dimensional or simple — or as a necessary but “innately problematic” support system.
Throughout the film, I found myself praying Inez would catch a break. I felt her anguish, and at certain points, I realized that what I was feeling was not just an empathetic response but the frustration I’ve felt in my own experience with motherhood bubbling up. While Black mothers are obviously not a monolith, we do all navigate systemic racism and misogynoir, which always affects how we move, love and protect.
As a Black mother and writer, I know what it is like to face challenges that feel almost impossible — like finding work when you can’t afford child care, and wearing yourself thin but still not making enough to afford rent. These moments have left me feeling depressed, angry and like a failure, all at the hands of a system that thrives on keeping people like me underpaid and undervalued.
In these moments, when I’ve exhausted all my options and am blaming myself, I deeply crave the kind of communal support that eases the woes of being a Black woman raising a child. Viewers witness Inez’s battle with social isolation and her attempt to patch up her loneliness by creating a family she goes to war for. Even amid this struggle, Taylor’s character finds and highlights deep pockets of joy that come with mothering in a society that does not support the humanity of Black women.
Inez, at times, embodies a trope that storytellers often call “the Sapphire,” a Black woman who is loud, violent, overly sexualized and challenging to deal with. While this is just one of a number of stereotypes used to portray Black women, it’s hard to shake. A 2021 study found that Black female characters in television and film are more likely to be hypersexualized, violent and single. These representations play a huge role in shaping Black women’s experiences in real life, even though Black women continue to show how multifaceted and emotionally rich they are.
“That bothered me a lot, you know,” Rockwell says. “There was no context regarding why they are the way they are, or any level of empathy that spoke to their experiences. And so I really wanted to honor all of these things as I was telling this woman’s story.”
Rockwell’s own history of coming up in a transitioning New York allowed her to depict the unique experience of raising a Black child in a city where they are twice as likely to experience poverty as white children. Rockwell saw a profound metaphor as she wrote the film. “To me, Inez was New York City personified,” she says.
Rockwell’s understanding of the city, and of the women raising children there amid rapid change, equipped her with the wisdom she needed to illustrate, in “A Thousand and One,” how gentrification takes a toll on women like Inez. She also explores the intersectionality of class, colorism and misogyny to reveal how we face daily burdens. “All of these things are put on this woman’s shoulders as she’s just trying to fight for the best life for her family and for her kid,” she says.
Viewers will bear witness to Inez’s struggle to find housing, work, child care and good schools on her own, in a social landscape that can feel booby-trapped. These challenges run alongside her quest for healthy partnership and self-love. On this journey, those unfamiliar will inevitably grasp how and why she finds unconventional solutions. Ultimately, through Inez’s character, Rockwell was able to explore how mothers face judgment and shame for the decisions they make out of necessity.
Throughout the film, Inez constantly fights for the people she loves. But Rockwell’s finely drawn obstacle course leaves us asking: Who is fighting for Black women?
“By the end, I think there is this clarity she faces,” Rockwell says. “Kind of like, ‘I am a person who not only feels loved, but loves herself.’”