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Lena Waithe Believes ‘A Thousand and One’ Deserves Oscars Attention

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Lena Waithe can’t be anymore direct when talking about “A Thousand and One,” writer-director A.V. Rockwell’s feature film debut.

“Films like this oftentimes are not always seen or recognized by the Academy,” says Waithe, a producer on the Sundance Film Festival winner. The film follows Inez (Teyana Taylor), a woman recently released from prison who kidnaps her son from the foster care system. “For us, that is the Super Bowl and with this little engine that can, we hope to make it all the way to the big game because the movie is worthy of that screenplay, direction, performance and film. And I hope people really show the film the respect deserves.”

Variety caught up with Waithe and Rockwell over a Zoom call on the morning after the Gotham Awards, where Rockwell won in the category of breakthrough director.

Since then, “A Thousand and One” was named by the National Board of Review as one of the top 10 movies of 2023. It also received Independent Spirit Award noms for first feature and lead performance.

Lena, what was it like reading A.V.’s script for the first time?

WAITHE: Before A.V. even dove into it, you talked about home, family and identification. Those were just the ideas. We wanted to make her first film and she said those are some themes that she wanted to explore. We did an early table read, and then obviously other table reads and I’ve just always been very emotional in hearing the work and looking at it because I was raised by a single mother. I was disciplined by a single mother. I know how much of who I am is because of who my mother is. And I think A.V. really just taps into that so beautifully. How can you not see this and not just have your heart ripped out?

A.V., how long did it take you to write the script?

ROCKWELL: I started in 2018. In some ways, I feel like this movie — it was sitting in my spirit for a long time. This was maybe even two years actually from when I had the first spark of what I knew in my heart I wanted the movie to be about, just in terms of the emotional experiences that I had witnessing the erasures of communities of color in New York City. It was a two-year process just between digging deep into myself to craft each of these drafts of the screenplay, but also doing a wealth of research. Every time that I would get through a draft, I’m like, “Something’s missing.” As I’m trying to shape this story, it’s also something that in many ways for me was a historical document. I just needed to go deep through the history of New York to give perspective to what I was saying about what it meant to come of age during that time and to raise a child during that time.

It’s a fictional story, but so many people have thought it’s based on real people.

ROCKWELL: I wanted it to feel as much as possible like a time capsule. If somebody wants to know what it meant to experience New York at the turn of the century, I really wanted it to immerse people in that way. I wanted them to feel like people that you and I really know in the real world. These are people that are complicated. These are people that are three-dimensional. These people are you and me.

Was there a scene that didn’t make it into the film that was really tough to cut?

ROCKWELL: We had a whole chapter of the film that touched on what was happening on the Lower East Side. At the time, it was predominantly a Latin American community living there. And so Inez and Terry, originally, they were going to spend a certain part of the film while they were still bouncing around, they would’ve stopped there. But as the movie started to take shape and become what really it needed to become, it just felt like there wasn’t space for it.

Let’s talk about casting Teyana. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. There were times I was so angry with Inez but, at the same time, I was cheering her on.

ROCKWELL: Everything that you just said in terms of the complexity of this character, it was there on the page. So as I was going through the casting process with Avy Kaufman, our casting director, every tape that I was looking at, I was searching for that. I was searching for colors and shades. I was searching for actresses that would bring that full level of humanity to her. And also not look at this character, this complicated woman, with a certain level of judgment. They were fully empathetic with what it was, that internal battle that she was going through as somebody who came from such a traumatic upbringing as someone who did come through foster care, as someone who didn’t have any family, as someone who feels like all of her pain and turmoil was so misunderstood and pacified, if anything. But was still committed to trying to be a better person, not only for herself, but for others that she cared about and wanted to protect from having the similar struggles.

When I saw Teyana, just seeing her first take, I felt that. She felt so raw and pure in a way that Inez is very raw and straight up, I felt that just in her spirit and in her soul. But then she just had this very intuitive understanding of the character, just in the ways that she interpreted the scene and the choices that she made. It was all very intentional and very potent.

Lena, this is the ultimate purpose for you — championing a young Black female director.

WAITHE: This really is the dream. It’s a wonderful feeling to even put my own stuff out, which is exciting and fun. But for me, this really is my legacy. I just really am drawn to visionaries. I’m in awe of A.V. and her vision and how detailed she is. I want people to see filmmakers like her and know that it’s possible — to know that your story is valid and you should tell it exceptionally.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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