Alice, Alicia Witt, Common, Craig Stark, drama, film festivals, Gaius Charles, Georgia, Jaxon Goldenberg, Jonny Lee Miller, Keke Palmer, Krystin Ver Linden, Madelon Curtis, movies, Natasha Yvette Williams, reviews, Sundance Film Festival
January 24, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Krystin Ver Linden
Culture Representation: Taking place in Georgia, the dramatic film “Alice” features a cast of African American and white characters (with some Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A young woman who has lived life as a slave in the 1800s antebellum South escapes from her plantation into a world where it’s 1973.
Culture Audience: “Alice” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies about slavery and civil rights in the U.S., but the movie is a poorly made story that terribly bungles its social justice intentions.
“Alice” might have been intended to be a passionate social justice movie, but it’s racial exploitation junk that’s tone-deaf, cringe-inducing and downright insulting to African Americans. Because of a certain twist in the movie’s awful plot, “Alice” is going to get inevitable comparisons to the 2020 horror misfire “Antebellum.” Both movies are about a young African American woman who wants to escape from a slave plantation, and she finds out that her life isn’t what she thought it was. And both movies are bottom-of-the-barrel garbage.
Written and directed by Krystin Ver Linden, “Alice” is a slow-moving train wreck of a film that spends the first third showing repetitive scenes of slaves enduring abuse. “Alice” claims to be based on true events, but slavery abuse is the only realistic thing about this trashy sham of a film. “Alice” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s proof that even a prestigious festival such as Sundance can sometimes choose crappy movies to showcase. At least “Alice” showed some restraint in the violent scenes, compared to “Antebellum,” which seemed to revel in showing scenes of slaves getting beaten, raped, strangled, and viciously murdered.
The title character in “Alice” is a house slave in Georgia who is shown getting secretly married to another slave named Joseph (played by Gaius Charles) in an early scene in the movie. Alice (played by Keke Palmer), who’s as feisty as she can be under these enslaved conditions, wants to lead an escape plan for the plantation’s slaves who want to run away. It’s exactly like what the female protagonist in “Antebellum” planned too. The opening scene of “Alice” actually shows Alice running away in the woods, where she stops and then lets out a scream. The movie then circles back by showing this scene again after viewers see what led up to this escape.
Alice wants to escape, but some of the other slaves on the plantation are more hesitant, including Joseph’s mother Ruth (played by Natasha Yvette Williams), who warns Alice that there are white men stationed everywhere who are ready to catch and possibly murder runaway slaves. Everything about the plantation is run like it’s sometime in the early 1800s, when slavery was legal in the U.S., and electricity hadn’t been invented yet. The plantation owner is a predictably cruel and sadistic racist named Paul Bennet (played by Jonny Lee Miller), who rapes Alice and forces her to read to him. Paul tells Alice that her reading duties are the only reason why he’s allowed her to know how to read.
Paul’s ailing mother Mrs. Bennet (played by Madelon Curtis) lives in the same house, where she’s often bedridden. She doesn’t have a first name in the movie, and she’s a useless character. The only memorable thing that happens with Mrs. Bennet is when Alice goes in Mrs. Bennet’s room and asks her in a fearful voice, “What’s out there?” Mrs. Bennet replies, “The whole world. Don’t you see?” Paul also has a son named Daniel (played by Jaxon Goldenberg), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, and an ex-wife named Rachel (played by Alicia Witt), who is not seen until much later in the movie.
Alice and Joseph are both brutally punished on separate occasions for various things. Paul has a right-hand man named Aaron (played by Craig Stark), who carries out a lot of the torture. At one point, Alice is tied up and her head is placed in a muzzle. You can bet that this punishment will be enacted again on someone else later in the movie. It’s all so predictable.
The plantation is all that Alice and the other slaves have experienced of the world. However, there’s a major clue that there’s something different about this plantation. The clue is revealed when Alice goes by herself to dig in the woods, as if she’s looking for something buried there.
She finds a jacket and a cigarette lighter buried in these woods. This cigarette lighter is one of the movie’s biggest clues indicating there’s going to be a “time-traveling” part of the story. A more subtle clue is a scene in the house, where Alice picks up the Leo Tolstoy novel “Anna Karenina” and looks at the cover. “Anna Karenina” was first published in 1878, which was 15 years after the Emancipation Proclamation that made slavery illegal in the United States.
After Alice escapes from the plantation, she finds herself running out of the woods into the middle of an expressway, where she almost gets hit by a delivery truck. The driver’s name is Frank (played by Common), who works with his brother at a farm that they co-founded named Florence Farms, in Springfield, Georgia. Frank stops and helps a terrified Alice into his truck. He says he’ll take her to a nearby hospital when he finds out that Alice seems very confused by her surroundings.
Frank tells Alice that she’s in Georgia, and that the year is 1973. And so, there’s a long stretch of the movie where Alice is frightened or curious about why she ended up in a future century. Alice has no last name and no birth certificate. But she hasn’t forgotten about the past and the people she left behind.
In the hospital waiting room, Alice sees Jet magazine with Pam Grier on the cover and Rolling Stone magazine with Diana Ross on the cover. Grier and Ross both have Afro hairstyles in these photos. Guess who’s going to change her hair into an Afro later in the movie? It’s a scene that looks as phony as the Afro wig that Palmer wears when Alice decides she wants to be the next Angela Davis.
Because, yes, this movie is about a slave who becomes a 1973 Black Power warrior. And it’s depicted in the most heavy-handed and ludicrous ways possible. When Frank finds out that the hospital is going to send Alice to a psychiatric facility, he takes her instead to the house that used to be owned by his late mother. And what a coincidence: His mother spent time in a psychiatric facility too, so Frank tells Alice that it’s definitely not the “happy place” that the hospital described it as.
And what do you know: Frank and his mother were civil rights activists. And so, the house is filled with books, magazines and newspapers where Alice can get caught up on what’s been happening to African Americans in the 100+ years that she skipped on the way to almost being hit by Frank’s truck and not knowing that slavery was abolished. Palmer does some melodramatic acting when Alice cries after finding out about the Emancipation Proclamation.
And somehow, when Alice turns on the TV, she just happens to see a montage of clips of Malcolm X, Fred Hampton and Davis giving passionate speeches about black people’s empowerment. Alice also learns to use a phone, which leads to one of the dumbest parts of the movie: Alice goes through the phone book to try to find someone from her past who would be long dead if Alice really thought that she came from the 1800s.
This “Alice” movie has a semi-obsession with showing Grier as the prototype of what Alice is supposed to look like, because there are images of Grier throughout the film that almost fetishize her. The first time that Alice and Frank go to a movie together, it’s to see Grier’s 1973 blaxploitation action film “Coffy.” Clips from the movie are shown of gun-toting Grier going on a rampage in revealing clothing and snarling about how she’s going to go after white people.
Not surprisingly, at one point in the movie, Afroed Alice is shown ripping up her slave dress and then strutting in the type of midriff-baring top and tight leather pants that Grier would wear in one of the many blaxploitation action flicks starring Grier in the 1970s. This movie is so badly written, if it had any subtlety, Alice would stomp all over it in her 1973 platform heels.
While all of this is happening in Alice’s “transformation,” music that’s supposed to sound like funky 1970s black music keeps playing as part of the movie’s soundtrack. An exception is a scene where Alice changes her hair into an Afro. In this scene, the music soundtrack blares Diana Ross & the Supremes’ 1966 hit “Reflections,” as a “too on the nose” emphasis pointing out that Alice is a woman without a home and seemingly without an identity, but she’s a Strong Black Woman who’s going to find her identity and a way back home. (A line in the song’s chorus is “Reflections of the way life used to be.”)
As soon as Alice tells Frank she wants to go back to the plantation to rescue her husband and the other slaves, you know where this horrendous dreck is going. And just like in “Antebellum,” there’s a scene involving fire as part of a revenge plot. “Alice” is such an idiotic movie, there’s a scene with a raging fire that’s rapidly spreading, but people just stand around and don’t try to escape.
Palmer and Common look like they’re making sincere efforts to be convincing in the “thriller” aspects of the movie, but there’s no thrill to be found when everything is telegraphed in such a clumsy and racially condescending way. The other cast members in the movie either play caricatures or have characters with no real personalities. Alice is not even written as a fully developed person. She’s just a stereotypical avatar for what racially condescending filmmakers think African American women are supposed to be like when confronting oppression and racism.
The atrocious dialogue in this movie would be almost laughable if it wasn’t in a movie that’s supposed to be about a very serious subject. For example, Alice declares to Frank at one point: “Just so you know: Doing the right thing is never wrong.” In another scene, Alice confronts slave master Paul’s racist ex-wife Rachel, who screams at Alice: “You’ll never understand freedom!” Alice shouts back, “I am freedom!”
Usually when a movie badly mishandles the issues of slavery or racism against black people, it’s because the production team consists mostly of people who aren’t black. The filmmakers’ hiring practices also show that they don’t care about working with enough black people on a project that is about racism against black people. That’s definitely the case with “Alice.”
“Alice” writer/director Ver Linden and nearly all of the behind-the-scenes crew she hired for “Alice” are white. Most of the black people hired for the movie were actors playing slaves. “Alice” star Palmer has the title of executive producer, which is a title given to someone who might have some creative input but not any say in how the movie was financed or who got to direct the project. That’s the job of someone with the title of producer. And for “Alice,” the only person with the producer title is a white man named Peter Lawson.
Normally, it would not be necessary to point out the race of the filmmakers in a movie review. But in this case, when slavery and racism against black people are being used in a story to sell this horrible film, it’s important for audiences to know who’s responsible for this racially exploitative mess. Everyone involved in making “Alice” should be ashamed of themselves.
Some people might automatically think that any movie that condemns racism has to be a good movie. Some people might think they’ll get Black Lives Matter credibility if they recommend seeing a movie like “Alice.” The problem is that “Alice” is neither a good movie, nor is it a movie that genuinely cares about treating issues about racial equality and civil rights with any real respect. “Alice” is just a tacky cash grab that uses the trauma of slavery and racism as a way for filmmakers to make money from black people’s real-life pain.
Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions will release “Alice” in select U.S. cinemas on March 18, 2022.