Sundance 2022: 'Alice' is an Imperfect but Plucky Ode to the Blaxploitation Subgenre

Updated: Mar 7

Playing off a similar concept from 2020’s largely dismissed Antebellum, first-time director Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice aims to assess the horrors of slavery and the plight of 20th century American civil rights with a very different tone. This Keke Palmer vessel depicts a woman who manages to escape from bondage, only to discover that the year is 1973. Ver Linden certainly has a lot to say, but not quite the writing strength nor the budget to accomplish it. Nonetheless, it does have its moments of brilliance. With thirty more minutes of character development (Common’s character, Franklin, is particularly lacking) and a more visceral adjustment period from Palmer’s life as a slave to her new freedom in the 70s, the team might have struck gold. Instead, the audience is treated to a few poignant reflections on contemporary civil rights heroes, a funky Blaxploitation-inspired ending, and a lot of script contrivances in between.

The pacing is what proves detrimental to its fascinating concept. The film makes the decision to depict plantation life extensively and brutally. The most obvious indication of the beginning overstaying its welcome is the fact that the title card at the opening of the film shows Alice escaping from slavery. The audience knows what’s coming, but Ver Linden pads nearly ½ of the runtime with Alice in servitude on the plantation before it reaches the point in the film that the title card depicts. It’s completely chronological, and any viewer who read the description prior to the film would know that her freedom is coming. The film need not dwell on her experience in slavery for so long. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the film could see her escape happen in the first ten minutes. If the goal was, in fact, to demonstrate A) Alice’s difficulties adjusting to modern life and then B) her planning her revenge, spending half of the movie showing her multiple attempts to escape can just as easily be implied. Strangely, she adapts to modern life with apparently very little difficulty. A post-modern, multi-panel “cracking the books” montage does not constitute a reasonable segue from point A to point B. She goes to the library to do research, sees Pam Grier in a movie once, and bam: she’s clad in bell-bottoms and ready to enact retribution.

Ver Linden said in the Q & A that she wished to convey a tone of empowerment in the film as opposed to subjecting the audience to another film depicting Black people suffering at the hands of white people. I have no doubt that the movie will market itself as a story of redemption and vengeance. But for all the work they put into the production design and costumes of the 1970s, there’s barely enough time spent in these new environments to convince the audience of Alice’s sense of cultural awakening. It stinks, too, because Keke Palmer puts her all into this performance. She is legitimately incredible, and had the original idea been better developed, Alice could’ve been seen as her post-Disney breakout performance. But, in an effort to showcase the horrors of slavery, the film is essentially split into two parts, and the latter part is far more fresh and damning than the first.

Even with its many structural problems, Alice has the capacity to be a crowd-pleaser. It may not be as radical as it could be (Ver Linden was perhaps not the right person to helm the film, as its ambition is often in conflict with her novice), but it’s undeniably entertaining. Palmer is great, the tribute to civil rights icons meshes well with the bold ending, and the technicals are perfectly competent. Alice is indicative of a broader Blaxploitation revival, even if it’s not going to be the one that others attempt to emulate.

-Lydia

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