An awkwardly structured adventure that stumbles pretty badly in what should be its most exciting scenes, Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice builds a Blaxploitation revenge fantasy out of unspecified accounts of actual Americans who remained enslaved long after the Civil War.
In a Shyamalan-like twist, the title character escapes from a remote plantation to find it’s 1973 in the rest of post-slavery Georgia, then sets out to force her exploiters violently into the future. The queasy mix of realism and wish-fulfillment will set many viewers’ heads spinning, or at least shaking with disappointment, in this well-intentioned but unpromising debut.
An intriguing premise in need of a more experienced filmmaker.
Since that twist is part of promotional materials, viewers may be surprised at how late it occurs. Over a third of the film takes place in what might as well be the 1840s, telling an affecting but very familiar story. Alice (Keke Palmer), who has secretly married Joseph (Gaius Charles), must work in the home of plantation owner Paul Bennett (a visually and aurally unrecognizable Jonny Lee Miller), where her duties aren’t limited to cleaning up.
Though the script hints a bit at strange wonders beyond this property’s borders, this part is a movie you’ve seen many times before, replete with brutal punishments, escape attempts and an owner so vociferous about the care and respect he shows his “domestics” you wonder if he might actually believe his nonsense. Joseph has convinced Alice to escape with him, but circumstances force him to flee without her. That ends very badly, and Alice, after a failed attempt or two, manages to outrun her keepers — emerging from moss-draped trees just in time to nearly get squashed on a multi-lane highway.
She’s picked up by Frank (Common), who understandably thinks her bafflement at his truck results from a traumatic head injury. He takes her to a hospital, but when he realizes they’re going to put the presumed amnesiac in a sanatorium, he sneaks her out and brings her home instead. He makes her as comfortable as he can, leaving out things he hopes will jog her memory, but doesn’t manage to figure out the bizarre truth of her predicament. (Almost as bizarrely, the movie will never offer a scene in which that truth is made clear to him.)
He has to go to work the next day, leaving her alone with an encyclopedia and a phone book. And it takes this shell-shocked woman roughly 24 hours to teach herself all she needs to know about the Civil War and civil rights movement, phones and TVs, and all the other details you’d need in order to hunt down the ex-wife of your slave master and arrange to meet her at a diner. While she’s at it, she gives herself a makeover.
She also finds some mementoes that reveal Frank’s own past with the Black Panthers, making her sure that he’ll join in her plan to free her friends and family. But Frank wants none of it. He’s seen the price agitators pay, and he’s afraid. (Common’s performance here is not nearly as convincing as some he has given for more experienced directors.)
Which is more difficult to believe: That this clearly decent man would hesitate to help scores of imprisoned people, or that he believes no government entity would want to put an end to latter-day slavery? Even in an era of political assassinations and open demonization of activists, such a thing would be guaranteed to outrage at least a few people wearing a badge.
At any rate, having just attended a screening of Coffy, Alice sets out alone with leather pants and cans of gasoline to do her best Pam Grier impression.
As gratifying as it is to watch this beaten-down woman first encounter images of celebrated Black women, then wreak glammed-up havoc on those who stole her life, the second half of Alice offers nowhere near what’s required to allow us to believe. Maybe if it took Alice a week instead of a day to master the modern world? Maybe if Frank first took her to a police station, where nobody believed her story, requiring the pair to make their own plan? The Blaxploitation hits of the ’70s tended to value badass posturing over verisimilitude, but even some of those laid more careful groundwork for their action than Alice does.