A Thousand And One’s Teyana Taylor Left All Her Pain (And Rage) On Screen — & You Will Feel It

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
Major spoilers ahead. There is a quiet rage simmering throughout A Thousand And One, threatening to spill out onto the changing streets of Harlem, from the creeks of the tattered floorboards of a dilapidated apartment, and – most of all — to burst free from Inez, the Black woman at its center. Inez, played by the mesmerizing Teyana Taylor, has a lot to be mad about. She is a Black woman in America in the 90s after all, but more than that, she’s an ex-convict fresh out of Rikers and a mother who’s about to lose her son Terry (the gut-wrenchingly adorable and shockingly good Aaron Kingsley Adetola) to the foster care system. She refuses to let a Black boy falling victim to a brutal system be another anger-inducing detail of her life, so she takes him home — without the consent of the government. His survival is now explicitly linked to her own, and her anger becomes another thing she has to swallow (most of the time) to keep him safe — that, and their biggest secret: being together is essentially a crime. 
As Terry (who goes by Darryl at school thanks to a fake birth certificate) and Inez navigate their new reality, Inez tries to forge stability out of a shaky foundation, normalcy amidst a very abnormal — and unfair — situation. But Inez is used to life’s unfairness; her tough exterior, capricious temper, and unpredictable bravado are clearly defense mechanisms. She’s hard because she has to be and yet, at every turn, she’s met with pushback against her personality and tone policing asking for softness in a world that refuses to let her be soft. It’s a push-and-pull that Black women know well. And in an interview with Unbothered during our Go Off, Sis podcast, Teyana Taylor says that’s why Inez has been resonating so much with audiences (after I tell her the character made me weep uncontrollably). “She probably made you cry because Inez is within all of us. Our struggles may not all be the same, but like just a lot of the things that she's been through, we've all been through it,” she says in that smoky baritone any Taylor fan will recognize instantly. “A lot of the things that triggered Inez have been triggers for us. Her wanting to be heard, her wanting to be felt, we've all been through that before. To this day as Black women, we're still trying to be heard. We're still trying to be protected. We're still trying to be seen for real.” 
Through Inez, we’re finally seeing the power and potential of Taylor onscreen. The performance is electric and innate, like Taylor and Inez are two halves of one whole. Taylor is also from Harlem, and writer and director A.V. Rockwell (who sets the bar high with this debut) sees the parallels between Taylor’s story and the character she created. “As Black women — this is a story about our experiences — everything that makes us unique and the stuff that people should be grateful for and what makes us special are things that we've been told to reject,” Rockwell tells me over Zoom. “I think when it comes to Teyana, a lot of what makes her so unique has been things that she's been told to reject as well. I really wanted her to incorporate Inez’s journey as [one of] self-love and acceptance into her spirit. I wanted her to put her experiences in it so the experience of playing the role would be therapeutic.”
The way Taylor explains it, it sounds like playing Inez was like going to therapy daily. “It was easy to tap into Inez. [It felt like] something my body's been waiting for because I've been looking for an outlet to just finally be weak… emotionally,” Taylor, who has two daughters, says. “I’m not saying that Inez is weak, but everything that I was dealing with, I had an outlet to just cry on the spot. I had an outlet to outpour pain, I had an outlet to do all the things that I couldn't do at home because when I was at home, I was [being a] super mom. I was a superhero, so I wasn't allowed to cry, damn near wasn't even allowed to feel because I had babies to raise. I was secretly dealing with my postpartum depression [while filming]. It was emotional but it was therapeutic at the same time.” Taylor, like Inez, has the uncanny ability to be devastating and funny at the same time. “Life whooped Inez's ass, and Inez whooped my ass,” she laughs. “I left it all right there on the screen.” 

As Black women, everything that makes us unique... and what makes us special are things that we've been told to reject. I think when it comes to Teyana, a lot of what makes her so unique has been things that she's been told to reject as well.

A.V. Rockwell
Onscreen, while life is whooping Inez’s ass, she has to carefully regulate her emotions. At times, she taps into her rage (like during fights with her boyfriend Lucky who becomes Terry’s sole father figure) and at others (like when her new landlord tries to force them to leave their apartment for unnecessary repairs, or a “renoviction” ), she has to stifle her feelings for the sake of survival. She knows she’s one outburst — justified or not — from being pegged as an Angry Black Woman. “[Inez] is a product of her environment,” Rockwell says. “She's a product of her position in society and how people perceive us in general. That ‘Angry Black Woman’ trope is something we’re often assigned (and inner city women get that label especially) but people never ask us, ‘Why?’ Like if there's any truth to that [trope], where does it come from?” Rockwell continues. “I hope that anybody with a heart will see that if there is any truth to the suggestion of us being angry all the time that [it’s because] we have a lot to be angry about, not only that we have to fight wars against the external world, but even within our own communities, even within our own families and how we're perceived.” 
In Inez’s own family, she’s met with judgment — when she speaks out and when she doesn’t. Teen Terry (Aven Courtney) chastises his mother for being too hard on Lucky (William Catlett) without ever considering that the only dad he’s ever known isn’t treating his mom as he should (he’s been cheating on her, of course). Lucky also denigrates Inez for her anger. But when Inez doesn’t stand up for herself against their landlord (again, probably to evade the risk of eviction), Terry questions her behavior. “It's like oh, one moment you like when I'm spicy but then the next moment you use that very same thing against me,” Taylor says, slipping easily into referring to herself as Inez. “So at work when I'm fighting for you it’s OK, but when I’m fighting for myself it's a problem.”
Rockwell says she wanted to depict how that fight can wear Black women down. And in the scene with her landlord, Inez is biting her tongue as self preservation. “By that point in the film, she's thinking, ‘okay, maybe if I am a little bit quieter, maybe if I'm a little bit more somber in my approach, maybe the world will be better to me.’” And Rockwell can relate. “I can even think of all the moments in my own life when I had to fight on behalf of what was right for myself and others. And I was told, ‘there's no reason to get so loud, there's no reason to get worked up.’ It’s this idea that the issue here is me, not that you tried to push me. What's wrong is the way people try to come and attack us as Black women. The issue is us, not the circumstances that we face in our lives every day.”
So when the circumstances are stacked against Black women, who’s showing up for us when we’re busy saving everyone else? There’s a line in A Thousand And One that will bowl you over with recognition and honesty. During an argument with Terry, Inez says, “Don’t nobody give a shit about Black women except other Black women and even that shit gets messy.” For Taylor, the dialogue felt personal. “I come from a very affectionate family of all women damned near, all we do is uplift one another. So imagine coming into this dirty game, this dirty industry, where the women act like they love you for an aesthetic, because that's what it looks like when we pop up at this women’s empowerment brunch. We're all empowering one another and then the moment they yell, "Cut," who's really empowering one another? It gets messy because everybody's intimidated by one another, nobody knows how to stand on the same throne, nobody knows how to say, "You know what? Just lemme move over here. Let me break this crown in half.  Because nobody [wants to] share.”

I hope that anybody with a heart will see that if there is any truth to the suggestion of us being angry all the time that [it’s because] we have a lot to be angry about.

a.v. rockwell
For Rockwell, the line exposes “the way classism and respectability politics can play into the ways Black women show up for each other and the way the world treats us. That line is just acknowledging the fact that if we don't work through these issues, if we're not fully being there for each other, how are we going to be fully empowered?” she asks. “Nobody stands up for us. But are we really, truly, completely standing up for each other?”
For me, Inez is somebody who stands up for her community, even when it gets messy. (One last spoiler alert!) The film’s big reveal — and the twist ending that has divided critics and fans — is that Inez isn’t actually Terry’s biological mother. When she took him from the hospital and out of foster care without the government knowing, she was essentially kidnapping a child who wasn’t her own. But Terry would have been left alone and become a number in the system without her. The moment this shocking detail is revealed in the film is gutting. Terry feels betrayed by Inez but the fear of being alone again is radiating off of him (Aven Courtney is shaky at times in this role, but in this scene, he nails it). Once again, Inez reverts to her defenses and the comforting walls of rage she puts up to protect her own heart. To Terry, she’s cold, indignant and unapologetic. She’s mad he got them caught, but really, she’s mad that they are in this situation. Inez saved Terry; he needed her — and, when finally dropping the facade, she tells him through tears that she needed him right back. As they say their heartbreaking (seriously, I was a shell of myself during this ending) goodbyes, Inez declares that she “won” because Terry is going to grow into somebody successful and have opportunities he never would have if she had left him; opportunities she and Lucky never did. The film ends on a shot of Inez in a taxi, leaving her son and her life behind — with a smile. 
Photo: Corey Nickols/Getty Images/IMDb.
“I respect Inez because she never folded,” Taylor says in defense of the ending. “Inez has been through a lot, but she never let her faith walk stop, which is the reason why you get to the end of the film, she could walk away with a smile on her face knowing that she did her part and did everything she could, knowing that he's gonna be something. ‘I already won,’ as she says.” For Rockwell, the ending is a rare glimpse of hope in an otherwise bleak conclusion. “In that moment there is a little bit of a break from reality for a movie that is so real, but in the way that it feels a little bit more dreamlike. It's still emotionally honest,” she says. “There's so much pain in this movie and there's so much truth in that. But also you feel the progress and that is the story of our community and the cycles of our traumas. You also see the triumph as well. And as complicated as the ending of the movie is for this character and for everybody, to see two people that have this bond, there's so much progress in that moment as well.” 

It was emotional, but it was therapeutic at the same time...  Life whooped Inez's ass, and Inez whooped my ass. I left it all right there on the screen.

teyana taylor
Inez and Terry raised each other, and they were always running on borrowed time. To me, the ending signifies the power in a mother’s sacrifice and unconditional love. For Rockwell, it’s also about freedom. “Now, [Inez] is free. She's free with that full recognition of what she's gained. Now I can fully live it. And that's what I really want for Black women, too. I want us to be able to fully live in a way that shows us not only by fighting for other people and fighting for our community, but also fighting harder for ourselves from a fuller place.”
“I want us to love ourselves better, love our sisters better. I think we need to put more conditions on the ways that we show up for Black men and the ways that we show up for the world,” Rockwell says. “We need to set more standards, more of a bar, you know, because I love me, and because we love us. We are not going to fight for you until we see you showing up for us, too. So, Inez says farewell, at least for now, to Terry, but she's gained a lot as well. She might be on the run, but it's still exciting.”
A Thousand And One is now playing in select theaters.
Teyana Taylor is a guest on the April 6th episode of the Unbothered podcast Go Off, Sis.

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