Keke Palmer stars as the titular character Alice in Krystin Ver Linden’s directorial debut. The film, which Linden also penned, is set on a 19th-century plantation in Georgia, where Alice and her family are enslaved, only, the twist is—it’s actually 1973.
You may be thinking: “Hasn’t a film with a similar plot already come out?” And you wouldn’t be necessarily wrong. Alice has a premise that is reminiscent of the 2020 horror film Antebellum, which saw Janelle Monáe’s character transported back to a plantation in the 19th century. Alice takes a somewhat different approach and culminates in a very kick-ass, take-no-shit finale, but it ultimately takes a familiar and uncomfortable route in how it brutalizes Alice. While it may not be as gratuitous as films that preceded it, there is a distinct repetition in the narrative choices employed.
Alice boasts that it is inspired by a true story, but the truth is not derived from the twisted fantasy of people being kept as slaves in the 1970s, the truth is pulled from the tragic stories of enslaved people throughout America. When Alice is beaten and raped by her master—that happened throughout history. When Alice watches her family be beaten and murdered for sport—that happened throughout history. I say this as a white critic, but when have these particular story beats been done enough? When can Black-led thrillers exist without invoking slavery to brutalize its Strong Black Woman leads? The saving grace of Alice, at least, is that allows Alice to reclaim her agency and embark on a satisfying power fantasy of her own.
The first act of Alice feels like your typical period drama set in the Antebellum south. Alice is one of the enslaved people living on Paul’s (Johnny Lee Miller) plantation, alongside her husband (Gaius Charles) and some of his family. After her husband is left for dead for attempting to leave the plantation, Alice makes a break for it (after victoriously maiming Paul). She runs through the forest, past the Spanish moss-covered trees, and emerges in the middle of a sprawling highway.
Overwhelmed by her new surroundings, Alice passes out in front of a Mack Truck driven by Frank (Common) and he takes her under his wing, even though she’s asking crazy questions about whether he’s freed or enslaved. At first, he attempts to leave her at a hospital, but once he realizes that they’re going to institutionalize her, he takes her home with him and introduces her to all the finer things in life. Including television, music, and bologna sandwiches.
Outside of the playing on tropes that exploit Black trauma, another weakness of Alice’s screenplay is Frank’s character. He exists purely to supply Alice with exposition—both for her to discuss her experiences and for him to introduce her to the new world she finds herself in. While he has elements to his life that exist outside of Alice, including a brother, a job, and a backstory, none of them are fully implemented to make him more than a prop for Alice’s story. Which is a shame, because Common has an incredible screen presence and he and Palmer are just delightful to watch together.
For a debut feature, Linden makes strides in the right direction as a director, but as a screenwriter, the script lacks what it promises to deliver. It meanders quite significantly before it finds its way, and it attempts to borrow from too many historical pinpoints, just to claim that it’s “inspired by a true story.” While the final act may be gratifying to watch the framework of white patriarchy burn to the ground, the message gets lost in its heavy-handed exposition and shaky execution. There are even plot points that are never fully developed or returned to, leaving you to question aspects when the credits roll. Alice had the potential to be something really phenomenal and groundbreaking, but it leaned too heavily on the Black trauma that is depicted so often that the term “Blaxploitation” was coined. I’ll defer to Black critics for the final word on Alice, but I am personally tired of seeing Black women raped and beaten for the benefit of horror.
Regardless of how misplaced the script might be, Keke Palmer brought her A-game to Alice, running the full gamut of emotions with ease. She transforms beautifully from quiet self-preserving contempt to a triumphant victorious badass in the final showdown.
Alice premiered at Sundance this weekend. It’s set to arrive in theaters on March 18, 2022.