It’s horrifying to think that the institution of slavery was widely accepted within a good portion of American society just over one hundred and fifty years ago. Those born into slavery may not have known what the rest of the world looked like and were likely taught that they were serving their rightful place, not meant for or deserving of more. The notion that someone could continue to promote and enforce injustice and servitude long after that time is disturbing, and Alice brings that concept, based on true accounts, to fascinating life.
Alice (Keke Palmer) lives as a slave on a Georgia plantation, taught to read by its vindictive owner, Paul Bennet (Jonny Lee Miller) for his own entertainment. As he preaches the God-given command to procreate, both for white people and their “domestic livestock,” the notion of running away is rife with terror and uncertainty, since no one knows what awaits them in the woods. When Alice witnesses and then experiences another act of brutality, she seizes the opportunity to leave. When she emerges from the forest, she is nearly hit by a truck driven by Frank (Common). She soon discovers that the year is 1973 and there is so much more to the modern world than she could have imagined.
This film, which is based on true accounts from this era, begins in the universe Alice believes she inhabits, where Bennet’s word is law and must be obeyed for fear of retaliation. Bennet’s strong religious beliefs make him a cruel master, one who exacts punishment not because he delights in it but because it is his sacred duty. That twisted line of thinking, which has been instilled in Alice and others, makes her emergence into a more evolved civilization all the more jarring. Frank is not even able to process her unfamiliarity with a car or a television set without assuming that she hit her head and has forgotten who she is and what she knows.
This film is at its most mesmerizing when Alice sees what has been hidden from her, and uses the education that she has received allegedly merely for Bennet’s benefit to teach herself all that she doesn’t know. It’s not a simplistic process but one that finds her responding with curiosity and confusion, and then working to understand the functions of foreign objects like a phone book or a telephone. She also begins to understand and challenge Frank’s perspective and how he has given up hope on a far brighter world that could still be better.
While this could have been a grand revenge story with an extensive trial that forced Bennet to be held accountable to his actions, its title suggests a different focus. It’s Alice’s story, one that finds her grappling with all that has been taken from her by this man over the course of her life. She is also not familiar with a legal system that would give her any sort of rights, and so that would not be fitting. Since the film’s first third takes place on the plantation before Alice knows the truth, most of the remainder is spent on her journey of self-discovery, one that becomes stylized and triumphant as she realizes she finally has the power.
Alice features a strong central performance from Palmer that powerfully conveys the transformation she undergoes as her eyes are opened to a reality that has never before been shown to her. Miller is chilling and despicable as the representation of white entitled superiority, a role he excels at though it’s surely unpleasant to play. This film will definitely be difficult and triggering for many to watch, but it does succeed in telling a poignant story of resilience and empowerment, one that underlines the importance of learning from and evolving with history.
Alice is screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival.