Alice is but another well-intentioned but utterly ham-fisted confrontation of America’s original sin.
While history books are quick to tell us that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 put an end to slavery as a whole, those with any knowledge of the evils of white men know that numerous areas of the South continued the tradition for over 100 years, as a large number of African Americans were trapped in a sinister system of servitude, paying off “debts” as part of a rigged system. Writer-director Krystin Ver Linden uses this historical atrocity as a jumping off point for her debut feature Alice, in which a diabolical plantation owner (Jonny Lee Miller) in 1970s Georgia has convinced his 12 “domestics” that slavery is still lawful by shielding them from the outside world. For all intents and purposes, it is still 1860, a Shyamalan plot point in spirit. Nearly the entire first half of Alice follows these various souls trapped in a hell of their keeper’s making, focusing specifically on the titular Alice (Keke Palmer), a literate yet soft-spoken young woman who serves as cook and maid to the household. Alice is repeatedly dehumanized and forced to suffer grave indignities, yet the camera always cuts away from the more obscene acts of assault and degradation, the ultraviolence reserved solely for her oppressors, who will ultimately receive their comeuppance. The problem, then, is that too much time is devoted to this particular section, adding nothing new to the conversation and protracting the inevitable twist. Whoops, sorry, not even a twist; in truth, Alice would be far more interesting had it kept its plot specifics under wraps. Curiously, they are instead the focal point of the marketing materials, leaving much of the movie to be little more than a game of thumb-twiddling, waiting endlessly for the other shoe to drop.
Once Alice finally escapes her prison and discovers the modern world through a chance encounter with semi-truck driver Frank (Common), there is barely any movie left, as Ver Linden fast forwards through various plot points and character arcs to get to its blaxploitation-inspired ending, of which she seems entirely too proud, especially since it plays out exactly like Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Tonally, the film is all over the map, as Alice’s various encounters with modern-day conveniences are presented as Disney-fied fish-out-of-water nonsense, such as Alice’s fascination with bologna and her questioning of whether “little people” are trapped in television sets. This immediately precedes a musical montage in which Alice “Austin Powers” her way through modern Black history by looking through numerous books that luckily highlight only the most famous of Black leaders so that white audience members can nod their head, pat their back, and announce, “Hey, I know that person.” It’s obvious that Ver Linden’s heart is in the right place, but the entire back half of Alice plays like a CliffsNotes version of ‘70s Black culture and is more insulting than enlightening, and that’s even before having to suffer through dialogue like, “I am freedom!” and “doing the right thing is never wrong.” The thing is, it’s obvious what Ver Linden is attempting here: namely, a topical allegory on the oppressive systems still faced by African Americans today, how systemic racism has convinced an entire society that the status quo must be maintained, regardless of the individuals forced to suffer. It’s clear that meaningful change is not going to be enacted from the top down and, especially in the wake of the BLM movement, that a conscientious citizenry must wage such moral wars, but such discourse is delivered here in the most ham-fisted way possible. Palmer gives a committed performance while never once actually being good, leaving a huge hole in the center of the story, while Common undoubtedly got a hernia from carrying yet another film on his shoulders. Alice is ultimately the kind of film that prides itself on its supposed cleverness, like naming its lead character after a famous literary heroine who went on a fantastical adventure through the world of Wonderland and discovered herself in the process. After all, isn’t that what our Alice is doing here? Too bad there’s no wonder to be found in this Alice.