Tennis and a Movie: Thoughts on the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Premiere of ‘Alice’

Good evening to you! I know, I’ve been away for a few weeks—up all night watching Australian Open tennis, which has been full of drama this year! And that’s excluding the fact that the number 1 player in the world (on the men’s side), defending champion, and holder of 20 grand slam titles was (not so) swiftly deported from the country the day before the tournament for not being vaccinated. That whole ordeal by itself was an epic saga. One that may or may not happen again at the French Open… TBD…

But you’re in luck tonight! Because there is no late-night singles tennis scheduled, so I may actually sleep (but Lord help me on semi-finals night tomorrow).

While I have the time, I thought I’d give you a follow-up to my post about the premiere of the film Alice in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which stars Keke Palmer and Common. I watched the film earlier this week (though I almost missed it, distracted by so many exciting sporting events happening at the same time—NFL playoffs divisional round, tennis—I had games playing on my phone, my computer, my TV…it was a wild night), and I must say I really liked it, but it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.

If you recall, I found the plot to be eerily similar to my story “Runaway,” which was written as part of my Twilight Zone New Year’s marathon. Although the film was definitely Twilight Zone-esque, it wasn’t the time travel sci-fi flick I was expecting it to be. And, in hindsight, I realize the synopsis pretty much told us that, I just overlooked that part entirely.

Alice (Keke Palmer) spends her days enslaved on a rural Georgia plantation restlessly yearning for freedom. After a violent clash with plantation owner Paul (Jonny Lee Miller), Alice flees through the neighboring woods and stumbles onto the unfamiliar sight of a highway, soon discovering that the year is actually 1973. Rescued on the roadside by a disillusioned Black activist named Frank (Common), Alice uncovers the lies that have kept her enslaved and the promise of Black liberation.

In her debut feature, writer-director Krystin Ver Linden spins a modern liberation fable that is equal parts earthy Southern Gothic and soulful Blaxploitation. Inspired by true accounts of Black Americans who were kept in peonage for more than 100 years after the end of slavery, Alice is an audacious mix of grim historical fact and exceptional fiction. Moving from a purgatorial plantation overgrown with Spanish moss to the lively landscape of urban Savannah, Ver Linden traces Alice’s breathless journey down the rabbit hole and into the turbulent wonderland of the post–Civil Rights South.

2022 Sundance Film Festival

The twist (and this is not a spoiler because it’s right there in the synopsis—I was just a little slower in catching on) is that the year was always 1973. Alice didn’t jump through time when she ran from her tormentor through the woods and emerged on a highway, nearly getting run over; she, the other slaves on the plantation, the plantation owner, and neighboring plantation owners and their slaves were all anachronisms, living in this surviving pocket of the antebellum South deep in the backwoods of 1973 Georgia.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Eliza Morse

And there were hints of this sprinkled throughout the first 30 minutes of the film: Alice’s husband’s grandfather telling the story of a man “like us” (Black) he once saw fall from the sky (paratrooper) who could make fire with his hands (lighter), the foreshadowing that there’s something else out there beyond the woods, the elderly mistress recalling that she was once a dancer in Chicago (presumably during the roaring 1920s), the owner’s son returning home (I originally thought from boarding school, but it was actually from his mother, who has divorced his father and is now living in the real world, but is still an overt racist) with some new toy that makes this strange static sound (a radio), and the fact that the slaves are never actually referred to as “slaves” but as “domestics” (something the writer and director said was intentional).

But what I found more sinister was that this film is actually based on true events! Now, I know what you’re going to say. “Based on true events” is a phrase used loosely in Hollywood. A movie or series can profess that it’s based on a true story, but in reality, 0.0025% of it actually happened.

Again, because I overlooked this revelation in the description of the film, I thought “true events” might have been referring to the true stories of brutal mistreatment of African slaves by white slave owners, which is not a secret in our country’s history (even if our government is trying to ban it from being taught in schools today). So after the movie, I decided to tune in to the live Q&A with the film’s writer and director, Krystin Ver Linden, producer, Peter Lawson, and lead actor, Keke Palmer, to see if they would provide more details on these true events that apparently inspired the film.

The answer, again, was not what I expected, and is truly spine-chilling. It’s true, there were pockets of slave holders throughout the Deep South who continued to own slaves well into the 1960s, one hundred years after slavery was abolished—though, I don’t think these people were as dramatically frozen in the 1800s (period clothing, lack of electricity or plumbing, etc.) as the characters in this movie were.

I’ll save you the trouble of having to look it up (because the director literally just said, “Google it” 😂) and link the Vice article here. It’s a fascinating history lesson, but one that is also tragic, especially when you think about the story behind Juneteenth and realize there were countless others who had to wait even longer. Generations!

Now, I’m not naive. Forms of slavery still exist today, as the author of the above-mentioned article points out, the “school to prison pipeline and private penitentiaries.” Others that come to mind include sex trafficking, sweat shops, child labor. But something as blatant and defiant as the continuation antebellum chattel slavery when the rest of the world has progressed a century is abominable.

Thankfully, our titular character, Alice, has emerged in the era of Blaxploitation films—as was explained by Krystin and Keke in the Q&A, in that lull period post-Civil Rights when hope feels lost after the assassinations of leaders such as Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr, but there’s still a desire to bring progress and freedom to one’s people—and she quickly (perhaps too quickly, though it helps that she can read) realizes she’s been lied to all her life and returns to her personal hell donning an afro and black leather pants with fire and fury to “stick it to the man!”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Eliza Morse

Alice’s triumphant words to her former owner, “I am freedom,” in the final act was the culmination of a phenomenal performance by Keke Palmer. Common was a bit lack luster, unfortunately, but I think that had more to do with a weak script; he really didn’t have much to work with. The most I got from his character, Frank, was that he was a disillusioned ex-Black Panther who was still grieving his mother who had died alone in a sanatorium, and his brother, a Black Republican who owned a farm and employed poor, underpaid Mexican immigrants, was a source of great shame to him. For the most part, he merely served as a supporting character to Keke’s more dominant Alice (despite her meekness in the first 2 acts), which made some of their dialogues underwhelming—another possible reason for why it took me so long to figure out that she didn’t in fact travel in time.

This film will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the 2020 film Antebellum (which is valid, though the brutalization of Black bodies is not as graphic as in Antebellum), and some will wonder why stories like these still need to be told. Are we as Black people not sick of this constant bombardment of our traumatic history being glorified in movies and television? Why must they continue to trigger our PTSS (post-traumatic slave syndrome)? And while yes, I agree that I am tired, the reason why I believe a story like Alice is necessary in cinema can be summed up in the words of the Vice article’s author, Antoinette Harrell:

However, I also believe there are still African families who are tied to Southern farms in the most antebellum sense of speaking. If we don’t investigate and bring to light how slavery quietly continued, it could happen again.

The truth behind those words is haunting. There is so much more we just don’t know.

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