Alice: True and False, by Dayne Linford
The phrase “inspired by true events” is notorious for doing a lot of heavy lifting across film as a medium, gearing the audience up to receive what’s coming as a kind of flashcard for real events. Sometimes, however, the true events are so outside of normal ken they feel just like fiction. Opening on a one-in-a-million shot of a slave girl running away in what we assume to be the antebellum South, loosing a terrible scream, Alice puts us in a different place entirely when it cuts to credits, fading in a burnt orange, thick-lettered title, little seriphs sprouting from the letters. Alice, our escapee played by Keke Palmer, exists in both these worlds at once, a fictional version of increasingly notorious real-life cases, American chattel slavery existing into the 1960s.
Writer/director Krystin Ver Linden works this surprising reality by leaning into film genre trappings, the slavery plantation as effectively antebellum as any Hollywood’s produced. There, Paul Bennet (Jonny Lee Miller) maintains control with a terrifying aptitude for violence leavened with the assertion that he’s protecting and providing for those he exploits. A small group of modern day slaves live under his thumb, unaware of the reality outside the plantation, eking out a living of constant struggle and privation. The attempted escape and recapture of her forbidden husband, Joseph (Gaius Charles), prompts a sudden explosion of desperate rage in Alice, culminating in her own eventual escape, suddenly finding herself in a modern world beyond her imagining
Like 12 Years a Slave and The Underground Railroad, Alice employs a surrealistic approach, creating a sense of the condition of slavery as a horror that passes understanding and emphasizing power dynamics and a subjective perspective favoring those victimized by the institution. These elements are the strongest parts of the film, a dash of magical realism approaching mystery as Moses (Kenneth Farmer) tells Joseph how his father met a black man who could summon fire in his hand, revealing itself in the zippo lighter Joseph retrieves while unearthing a corpse. But Alice is really two films, and this friction, between a literal anachronism and the surrounding world, while the most interesting part of the film, ends up breaking along the fault line. Ver Linden works it beautifully in the first half but loses it entirely in the second, the part where Alice is surrounded by a fantasy land full of magic, perhaps most especially the mass liberation through common cause of her people: 100 years of brutal, hard-fought history traversed in her first step on the blacktop. She adapts with alarming speed to a historical change which our society is still making good on now. The next reversal, into Pam Grier badass, leaves your head spinning. Palmer does an excellent job throughout the film but fails at imbuing this change with the psychological heft it deserves.
This freewheeling approach to tropes shows a lot of skill on Ver Linden’s part and it’s to her credit that she keeps juggling as long as she does. Unfortunately, however, the film loses steam at this crucial moment of historical reckoning encapsulated in one person who undergoes the entire journey of Black American consciousness in the space of an afternoon with a surprisingly well-stocked cultural consciousness library. That Alice goes on this journey is the primary reason we’re here; we want to see her transform from victim into victor, from innocent to righteous avenger. But it’s not enough merely to make plain the rightness of this move for her as a character or for this work as a film, the transformation is a journey we yearn to take with her. Instead, we are simply teleported on the other side, with a few historical footage reminders to help us along and a sequence of clips from Foxy Brown to confirm Alice coming into her own.
The final series of confrontations, rather than excite and elevate her crusade, become a pro forma ritual, in which Alice states her independence, reaffirms it verbally, and then makes it clear physically. This is all well and good, a key element of the blaxploitation genre shading employed here, but lacking the sense of seedy violence and forced reckoning, not to mention much of the play and humor, of the genre itself. Admittedly, this river may very well be impossible to navigate, but the straight forward, head-on approach employed here ultimately is lacking.
Alice is many things. As a bit of genre play referencing an abhorrent reality and showcasing a set of talents, many of whom are coming into their own in big, exciting ways, it largely succeeds. As a film bringing all these elements together into one succinct piece that carries both the weight of its concept and the panache of its stylistic forebears, it falls short. Nonetheless, Ver Linden is clearly a director to watch and I hope her success at Sundance gives her the opportunity to develop her skillset further and put her name to powerful work in the future.