Instinctively, when we’re seemingly stuck in oppressive, hellish situations, we optimistically hope that there is a better world right over the horizon — or right over the highway in this case. That is the spark that drives the titular Alice in writer/director Krystin Ver Linden’s debut feature. Alice (Keke Palmer) is a slave on a secluded plantation in the antebellum South — or so she thinks. She is secretly married to Joseph (Gaius Charles), but that is not enough to shield her from the sexual advances and cruelty of their slave master Paul Bennet (Jonny Lee Miller). As life gets more unbearable on the plantation, the signs that there is something more than the eye can see (like the story that’s been passed down that a man once fell from the sky and could control fire) start piling up and sparks Alice’s determination to escape to freedom. When she emerges on the other side of the woods, she is left reeling in a more modern world (the 1970s, to be exact) unknown to her, and she must put together the pieces to figure out the real reality of the situation.
The basis of Ver Linden’s premise for Alice is based on history. For decades after the abolition of slavery, Black people were still exploited by white people — from sharecropping and other forms of oppression — leaving them not much better off than in their previous state. But the potentially fascinating premise of slaves realizing that they have been duped into continuing in practice long since abolished, and the aftermath of that revelation is not new (does Antebellum sound familiar?). And unfortunately, Ver Linden’s script leaves much to be desired.
When done well, a genre mashup can be a thing of cinematic marvel, but when not, it can be a hard watch. That is the fate that belies Alice. The film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be — a true drama, a Blaxploitation film, or a revenge thriller with a dash of sci-fi — and in the end, it just falls flat in its execution. You have to give it props for trying to celebrate Blaxploitation films of the 1970s (i.e., Coffy, Superfly, Foxy Brown, Shaft, etc.) because it is a genre that hasn’t really been given its due respect, but Alice just comes across as a lackluster imitation. It doesn’t have the same gravitas as films like BlacKkKlansman, Django Unchained, Jackie Brown, or Dolemite Is My Name, which all paid homage to the genre in recent years. Alice bites off more than it can chew and leaves the script light on the development work.
Take, for example, Frank (Common), the kind and concerned truck driver who intercepts Alice on her escape to freedom. There is no real back story or connection here, and we’re left never really fully getting the opportunity to get emotionally invested. And on top of that, the entire third act is rushed, leaving the whole film disjointed. There were even times when this film totally felt like I was watching a really bad stage play with most of the acting being shaky and over the top (or underwhelming in Common’s case), making matters worse.
But one can’t totally rag on the film. While there was so much that was wrong or underdeveloped, you have to applaud the effort of a first-time writer/director. Krystin Ver Linden started from a well-intentioned place. Lately, there has been a lot of fascination with Black radicalism of the 1960s and 70s in Hollywood (i.e., Judas and the Black Messiah and One Night In Miami). Ver Linden drew inspiration from this and started with a fascinating premise. But Alice nor Antebellum has been able to pull off The Twilight Zone-esque/M. Night Shyamalan twist of a story in a meaningful yet still entertaining and engaging way.
While the script and plot could’ve used some work, the set design, music, costuming, and hair and makeup teams should be applauded. The era was so skillfully encapsulated with the soundtrack (from Stevie Wonder to Diana Ross & the Supremes), the production design, and Fred Hampton and Angela Davis speeches seamlessly edited into the film.
And last but not least, one would be remiss if they didn’t give Keke Palmer props for her performance — she eats this role up and gives it 110%. In the end, Alice is a well-intentioned, if somewhat uninspired, and undercooked directorial debut that leaves viewers flummoxed.