ALICE: A Free Woman

Alice is the story of a black woman, born into slavery, who flees from her plantation — but returns later for retribution.

If by some chance you’ve not seen the trailer or heard the film’s general premise, this would be an amazing film to go into blind. There’s a big twist midway which has been openly identified as the story’s hook and in no way hidden in the film’s marketing, but for the rare person who is surprised by it, that would be an incredible treat.

If you happen to fall into this category and are interested in a story about black and female empowerment, and the still-ongoing struggle for civil rights, then don’t read any further and avoid watching any trailers. Just check it out!

Of course, chances are you may already know the premise — Alice (Keke Palmer) escapes her rural plantation only to discover it’s 1973. Her life, her entire existence, has been a lie perpetrated by a racist patriarch (Johnny Lee Miller) whose family has presumably continued to run their remote plantation as it has for over a century, by simply withholding knowledge of the outside world.

As shocking or implausible as it may sound, this premise is, as the film notes, inspired by real events where pockets of slavery and involuntary servitude continued to exist well into the 20th century.

On finding her way to modern civilization in an era marked by black empowerment, Alice is taken in by a sympathetic stranger (Common), himself a former civil rights activist, and undergoes a transformation (inspired in part by watching action queen Pam Grier in Coffy) and determines to bring justice and liberate all of her enslaved friends.

I really taken with this premise and the terrific performances of both Keke Palmer and Common. And you know I’m on board for anything that pays tribute to Pam.

The film has one main shortcoming, which it that it loses some steam in the second half. Typically in feature storytelling there are some third-act wrinkles and conflicts to keep the protagonist on their toes, but there’s not much of that here. Once Alice determines her mission, she basically sets out and does it — there aren’t really any surprises here, most of the enjoyment just comes from resonating with the premise and watching things unfold, relatively unopposed. (And unlike, say, the aforementioned Coffy, or slavery-revenge films like Drum or Django Unchained, this film’s ending doesn’t feel particularly violent, cathartic, or impactful).

For me the film immediately draws a couple of comparisons. The more obvious is 2020’s Antebellum, which is a similar story in the opposite framing: in which a modern black woman suddenly finds herself in the antebellum south.

The other is Kevin Willmott’s lesser known but fascinating indie satire and atomic-age sci-fi spoof Destination: Planet Negro!, in which a trio of Jim Crow-era black scientists (associates of George Washington Carver) are hurtled forward through time into the age of Obama. From their perspective it seems at first as if black people’s problems are over, but that myth is soon shattered.

Both Destination: Planet Negro! and Alice struggle a bit with the same challenge of their similar stories — as the time-transported characters get caught up on decades of modern history, things slow down for a civics lesson but don’t manage to work up the same energy again. Though in this respect, Alice finds the better balance of the two.

There’s truth in the idea that you can’t fully appreciate or understand freedom unless you’ve lived without it, and in that sense Alice is most empowering: to watch, and in some way share, the transformative experience of someone who lived a life without autonomy suddenly having control of her life, and making the most of it.

While I did find some fault with Alice, overall I really liked it — both as entertainment and a message movie which never muddles the message.

Alice is now playing in theaters.

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