Alice tells the story of an enslaved woman who believes she is living in the antebellum South. When Alice (Keke Palmer) escapes to freedom, she learns that it is in fact 1973. Alice blossoms under the aegis of a former Civil Rights activist named Frank (Common). Through him and her own research, comes to understand something about that her entire life on the plantation. That that life has been a terrifying, sadistic lie.
Krystin Ver Linden writes and directs Alice. It has beautiful acting, great shots, and is frightfully disturbing. However, there are certain stories over which white-presenting film critics should not have the final say. Cinema lovers are rightly infuriated when a white male critic pans Turning Red for not being relatable to him personally. Similarly, Alice is a film my privileged white perspective makes me less qualified to evaluate than a racialized reviewer.
As I watched Alice, it struck me how much of our identities limit us as critics. As a white-presenting woman, representations of Black women on screen do not impact how people view me personally. And so I do not personally pay for the consequences of poor representations. However, when we acknowledge the limitations of our perspectives, we can compensate for them. Or at least we can attempt to consult voices that have a better place in critiquing a certain film.
As a former Gender Studies grad student, I know there’s no such thing as a “view from nowhere”. So, it is sometimes best to look for a view from somewhere more impacted by a story than you are. While clarifying my thoughts on Alice, I read a review by Essence’s ARAMIDE TINUBU. Tinubu writes:
In Alice, first-time filmmaker Krystin Ver Linden painstakingly takes the time to sit in this setting of horrors, depicting everything from iron muzzles to beatings and alarming talks of human breeding. Unfortunately, this adds nothing new to the narratives of this time period.
Indeed, when scenes of graphic torture add nothing to the canon (which already includes acclaimed films like Twelve Years a Slave and Harriet), it is important to ask about the purpose (and unintended effects) of such images. I can imagine that some straight men undoubtedly find rape scenes in Game of Thrones titillating. So it isn’t hard to imagine a white supremacist misogynist taking pleasure from seeing this. That’s especially true with the scenes where Alice’s captor (Johnny Lee Miller) brutalizes her. Later in her review, Tinubu explains:
All stories of enslaved people are impactful and should be told. However, when it comes to the medium of cinema, we must consider why antebellum-set narratives are produced over those that depict Black joy and liberation.
While Alice’s script and direction have problems, there is a bright spot:. Keke Palmer proves herself an incandescent performer, capable of elevating whatever material anyone gives her. Despite lacklustre dialogue and a dubious premise, Palmer proves herself a powerhouse performer. Whether she’s for our sake as much as hers, I hope she receives more roles. Ones that are worthy of her talents.