CFR Executive Director Tehra Coles in Conversation with “A Thousand and One” Writer & Director A.V. Rockwell

Recently, CFR Executive Director Tehra Coles sat down with A.V. Rockwell, the critically acclaimed director of A Thousand and One, to discuss her debut feature-length film, her perspective on the family policing system, and the portrayal of Black women in her film. Set between the 1990s and 2000s, A Thousand and One focuses on a single mother who decides to kidnap her son out of the foster system to raise him herself, as the two struggle with life in a constantly changing New York City. 

Read our interview with Rockwell below and stream A Thousand and One on Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV.

This interview was published in June 2024 and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tehra Coles: What inspired you to create this movie and to depict [its story] in this particular way?

A.V. Rockwell: I just had tremendous empathy. I’d seen how the foster system impacted people’s lives, including certain people in my life. And so I think there was an empathy there. Then it was also just the observation of how the foster system is at its worst and when it’s not working, how much it can really fail people. And I think this can be seen in the context of the story that I’m telling, particularly about the ways that the city changed and the way it changed for the Black community. So much of this story is about who has the potential to be impacted the worst, who’s the most vulnerable when new policies are put in place that just don’t support us, don’t support our communities. 

And so that’s why I’m telling this story. For me, it wasn’t just an opportunity to speak to the bigger issues that were facing families at that time, but in the context, again, of who’s most vulnerable. People are really trying to fight tooth and nail to create their own lives for themselves, and it is devastating to be uprooted again and again.

Coles: Yeah, that really came through in the film. You know, when I was watching it again this morning, there were just so many lines that stood out to me. There’s one point where Inez and Terry are talking about him going to school, and he asks the question, “Why does everything good mean I have to go somewhere else?” 

Obviously, it made sense at that moment, but I also felt like it reflected a lot of what we hear from our clients, and also of what you were just saying about this idea that communities are changing, and asking “Is there still a space for me?” Toward the end of the film, Terry was asking “What is home?” or “Where’s home for me?” and that’s just something that we always hear from our clients as they’re going through the systemif there’s something happening in the home, children are being removed and placed somewhere else. 

I’d love to hear a little bit more about your process behind writing the script, because there were so many lines that really stood out to me to be reflective of the Black experience, and especially what we hear from our clients in New York City.

Rockwell: I definitely just tried to pull from an authentic place. A line like that I just related to it, because that’s really oftentimes how it is, and it is frustrating and unfortunate. And I identify with that myselfI had to go to schools outside of my community, oftentimes to get better access to what my mom wanted for me. So it’s just a reality in many ways. 

But I think the things that were less familiar with me—like I didn’t come out of the foster systemI definitely had to do research on, and especially in the ways that the movie was critical of the system. Like in the negligence of Terry’s case and how he was handled…I just wanted to make sure that there was a firm ground therefirm foundation thereand that it really could have happened the way it did. And I spoke to numerous people who had different connections to the system previously, or were working as social workers and so forth. I’ve thought that maybe there would have been more conversation about it, but they found it very believable, for the time that it was and just the reality of how overwhelming the system can be. 

And so I really just tried to honor that and speak to that, but I definitely felt like it needed to be handled with care, because I don’t work in the system. So I just want to make sure that everything that I put on screen I could stand by. I know that there are many beautiful stories that come out of that, that represent people who have come out of the system, whether it’s finding a foster home with somebody who really truly does love them or being adopted, but this was a film representing the other side of it. I just really wanted to be fully sure. I felt very responsible.

Coles: The way that Black women are depicted in A Thousand and One was really interesting to me as well. There was a character named Simone who Terry was talking to at that moment when they’re in the restaurant. I think she tells him that she’s actually moving away. But she says something like, “I’m not here for anyone trying to make me hate myself.” 

The difficult choices that the Black women in this film are constantly faced withbetween the romantic relationships, personal issues, work, all of that… Can you just say a bit about that piece of it and why that was so important to you, for Black women to be depicted in that way specifically?

Rockwell: So much of this journey, especially for Inez, is just learning to love herself, because I think as Black women we’re very conditioned to love when everybody else needs it and to be a support system and a savior for everyone within our families and also for our communities in many ways. Yet, we’re just so oftentimes taken for granted and diminished and demeaned. I think there were many examples of Inez fighting against that, whether it was in the extended community or within her own home. 

And I think Simone was another opportunity to represent that and also to challenge Terry, because the men in his life and the ways that they influenced himthey have the potential to influence him in the same way to take for granted the women around him. The women have lifted him up and loved on him or have the potential to do so. So I think in that moment, in many ways, Simone was kind of giving him the opportunity to figure out what kind of man he was going to be to the Black women in his life, you know?

Coles: I thought that was really powerful. At CFR, we represent a wide range of people. We have an office in Queensin Jamaicawhich I believe I read somewhere that you were from. And we also have an office in Manhattan and in the Bronx, but all of our families are caught in the same systems that were touched upon in the film: the family policing system (aka the “child welfare system”), the incarceration system, the immigration system, and systems of housing and public benefits. How do you see all of these systems affecting families? And do you have any thoughts about how it should be addressed outside of film or other ways that filmmakers like yourself should be also speaking to this and using that platform to uplift these same issues?

Rockwell: I definitely think that a lot of these systems are failing and need to be examined, and the way they function is oftentimes in ways that either pull families apart or can keep them apartand I think policy is really what needs to be looked at. And a lot of these things manifest in ways that we don’t even realize what’s happening until it’s too late, and that’s really what you see in the film. I think in terms of how it’s depicted in film–I think it’s something important to shine a light on and that’s why I did. I made the effort to do so with this movie, and I think it has the opportunity to show a lot of people their own reality or expose them to other people’s realities. I hope people can do something at the end of the day–I’m an artist, you know, so I can only use my voice to call attention to these issues, but you guys are the ones who actually have the ability to do the work in a more meaningful and direct and daily way, so I think I just try to use my platform to magnify your voice, essentially. I think that’s the best thing that I can do as a starting point, you know.

Coles: So there was a big reveal at the end of the movie between Inez and Terry about their biological relationship. What do you hope that this narrative decision to have that big reveal be a part of it would convey to viewers?

Rockwell: I think the biggest thing is just how desperately the system fails people. Through her own life experiences, Inez knew firsthand what that is and what that meant, and the ways that she identified and connected with this young boy and how vulnerable he was when they would have first met. As she made the decision and commitment to change her life. I think on the surface level, she wanted to save someone in the ways that she wished someone would have saved her. 

And then on a deeper level, I think her being so desperate to be loved and to be seen, and for all of her wounds and scars to be healed. I think she was hoping that Terryas a sonwould be able to give her that love back. Those are the big things that I was thinking the most about: this woman who’s desperate to be loved, her bringing this challenge into her life, and the magnitude of how messed up the system is.

Coles: Absolutely. I’m curious as to why you chose the mid ‘90s in New York City. Why was that the time period that you had selected?

Rockwell: That was the point in time that I wanted to talk about. At the time that I began this journey, I wanted to talk about gentrification specifically, because obviously that plays a role in the movie. By the ‘90s, gentrification had already landed and had changed so much of the face of New York City. And so this movie is about how we got here. It’s where I chose to start.

Coles: What was the casting process like for the film? 

Rockwell: I mean, it was challengingwe had a lot of first timers, fresh faces. And so just going through that discovery process took a lot of time. It was also shortly after Covid-19 had impacted the world, so it just made it much harder to find people because people were still hesitant about being back out. You also couldn’t connect with anybody in person, so all of these things happened through Zoom. It was just a different approach in many ways, but I’m just so grateful. I was really focused on just finding people who felt like authentically home, whether they were from New York or not. I think that the way that they were attempting to portray these characters, I was just looking for something that felt truthful, felt like home.

Coles: So what’s next?

Rockwell: Well, you know, the world is open to me. I look forward to telling more stories and making more movies, for sure. I’m open to working in TV. I just want to tell great stories in ways that can entertain but also create an impact in the ways that I really wanted this movie to do so. I can’t get into specifics in terms of what I’m thinking about, but I’m very excited for the future, the beginning of a whole new chapter in Los Angeles.

Coles: Well, we look forward to it. It’s really exciting. Thank you so much for making this film and sharing the story, because I really think it depicts the realities of so many people and families, and also what Black women, especially in those communities, are experiencing every day. So thank you for that.

Rockwell: Thank you. And thank you all for the work that you do. Again, I’m an artist, and so I use my platforms to inspire, but you guys are out there doing the real work, and so I have a real admiration for that as well. So thank you.