Alice made its premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival
When it comes to Black history, the pull to make a star-studded, headline-grabbing inspirational film is stronger than ever. Everyone wants a Black film based on a true story, especially when it gives Black actors the space to do the dramatic work that is so often denied to them. And with the looming threat of white directors telling these stories first, there seems to be a strong sense of urgency in getting these films made, especially in time for awards season.
In the years since 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture in 2014, Nate Parker’s 2016 directorial debut The Birth of a Nation tried — and failed — to replicate McQueen’s success by taking the true story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion and twisting it into an uneven melodrama. Four years later, Gerard Bush and Christoper Renz brought us back to the plantation, putting a disastrous, exploitative horror spin on the slave narrative with Antebellum. Now, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, we have a mix of both blunders with Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice: a half-bastardization of real events, half-genre experiment that is set to be one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
Alice tells the story of a young slave woman (Keke Palmer) who escapes from her plantation, only to find that it’s not the 1800s anymore (it’s the 1970s — 1973 to be exact) and she’s been legally free the whole time. The revelation is understandably devastating and reality shattering. When Alice sees a delivery truck for the first time she faints, and simple things like listening to a car radio or seeing images from a television broadcast startle and surprise her. A morose former activist named Frank (Common) is her only guide to this new strange world she finds herself in, her arrival giving his stagnant life purpose for the first time in years. Protective of Alice, Frank gives her a crash course on the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s and the burgeoning Black Power movement of the ‘70s. In awe, Alice finds herself and proceeds to concoct a dangerous rescue mission to liberate all the slaves she left behind.
Unlike Antebellum, which stole conceptually from Octavia Butler’s Kindred with diminishing returns, Alice is somewhat based on a true story. Linden used a 2007 People Magazine article as the loose base for her film, taking the life of Mae Miller and forcing it into a Blaxploitation mold. Miller left her plantation and emerged into the world in the ‘60s when the Civil Rights movement was still in full swing. In an interview with Collider, Linden said that she “wanted Alice to emerge in the ‘70s” so that she could take inspiration from strong Black women of the time, most notably Pam Grier. With Grier as her muse, Alice carves out a new and more confident identity, with the clothes and large afro to go with it. Linden, who previously worked for director Quentin Tarantino, approaches Black history in a similar vein to Django Unchained: more focused on retribution than the characters themselves. All we know about Alice is that she used to be a slave and isn’t anymore.
Even though the film spends a large chunk of time on the plantation before Alice’s escape, the backstory she’s given is paper-thin, with acting on the level of a made for television historical reenactment. Jonny Lee Miller is especially embarrassing as Alice’s lovelorn master, convinced that he’s a misunderstood romantic hero. Everything from the costumes to the story beats are reminiscent of every other slave film and limited series from the last 10 years, with nothing even vaguely human to hold onto. And once Alice makes it to the free world she’s stuck with Frank, a shell of a man played unconvincingly by Common, resulting in the pair feeling like strangers forced into narrative servitude. There’s no emotion in his performance, and Linden leaves him twisting in the wind with a clunky script that even the most skilled actor would struggle with. Palmer does her best to anchor Alice in a sense of emotional reality, giving the only good performance in the film. It’s a shame then that the movie is nowhere near good enough for her.
There comes a time when we must ask ourselves what slavery narratives do for the memory of our ancestors. Is this how we honor them? I do not believe (as recent discourse suggests) that we should stop making slave films. I think they’re vital to our culture, reminding us of how recent all that pain still is. But isn’t it time for a different approach? I often find myself wondering about the lives of real slave women: what they did in their spare time, how they prepared meals, who they loved, what they thought about. Instead of countless films reasserting what we know to be true — that America is deeply anti-Black and we have always had to look after ourselves — it would be refreshing to see a film about who these people actually were. The intrusion of whiteness on these narratives is stifling. They set the conditions for our bondage, but our ancestors still had lives that are worth our time, patience, and understanding. A film about Mae Miller would’ve been much more powerful because she suffered, survived, and lived long enough to tell us about it.
Instead, we have Alice: a film much more interested in symbolic revenge than the woman herself, that fails to treat its heroine like a real human being.