New from A Reel of One’s Own by Andrea Thompson: Sundance 2022 Review: Alice

Before we begin, one caveat please. “Alice” is indeed another movie about slavery, but hold your groans. Yes, this topic has been done. And done. And then done some more, but not quite like this, although it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Such fixation on the racism of the past, with endings that are far too neatly resolved, has mostly resulted in some very bad, very misguided, and altogether wasted efforts.

So we could hardly be blamed for thinking we’ve seen this before; it’s become grimly familiar. As we see a Black woman in period garb run through remote woods which shimmer with beauty amidst her pain and terror, we don’t need further context to know what she’s running from, or much convincing to believe that “Alice” is based on true events.

It’s later that the movie takes a turn that will (or should) horrify us all, and hopefully, inspire us to do more research on the history of slavery. Spurred by the cruelty of her enslaver, Alice (Keke Palmer) hits her limit and flees not so much out of the audacity of hope but imagination, of daring to think there is more than her brutal surroundings. But what a little education can do is infinite – Alice is the only Black person on the plantation who can read, a fact that will prove instrumental to her liberation.

When she gets to the outside world, that’s when the twist hiding in plain sight is revealed: it’s actually 1973, and Alice has been (legally) free the whole time. This fact changes everything the way it only can for someone who has a lived a life where their body has never been their own, and where the film becomes something of a fucked up fairy tale. 

We’ve all seen it, the one where a girl or young woman travels from her own world to a magical land, one where she discovers she is more powerful than she ever could’ve imagined. Only this one has a killer 70s soundtrack, numerous tributes to civil rights leaders, multiple magazine covers featuring Black women, and of course, a number of Pam Grier cameos in all her glory. And Alice, who is at first baffled by her surroundings and has no clue that she has the power to take down her former enslavers, soon absorbs the written history around her and learns she was always part of a story that involved far more than suffering.

When “Alice” looks like it may lean a bit too much into its motivating forces, be they the rise of Trumpism or its obvious reverence for Blaxploitation films, is when it seems like it may lose its way. If Palmer were anything less than a charismatic force of nature, then some of the lines might have come off as laughable, and the final act would be less cathartic, especially with Alice quickly donning the now classic Blaxploitation look. 

No doubt many critics are unnerved and feel that Alice’s progress is partly undone in her shift from victim to avenger. But it’s easy to imagine how quickly and easily rage and empowerment would flow from a woman who was always forced to suppress her intelligence and strength. And there’s a slap that should become just as iconic as the one heard round the world. For those who are willing to go with it, “Alice” will certainly be a satisfying ride.

Grade: B-

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