The idea of eradicating all oppression is not what should keep you going. It’s about the hope for a better tomorrow.
Like her Lewis Carroll namesake, the hero at the center of Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice hurtles down a rabbit hole, but the alternate reality in which she finds herself is no fairytale. It all started with a string of articles that Linden’s mother had sent her to read, including one about Mae Louise Miller, a Mississippi woman who recounted to People magazine her early days of enslavement through peonage—before finding freedom in the 1960s, a century after the Emancipation Proclamation.
In Linden’s tale, Keke Palmer is Alice, the “domestic” of an imperious master, Paul (Jonny Lee Miller), who is as cruel as one might expect on what inititally appears to be a hellish pre-Civil War plantation. But there are clues that not everything is as it seems. Take, for instance, a neoteric Zippo lighter. One day, Alice makes a run for it through the forest, staggering out of the tree line, and blinking into the sunny glare of an asphalt freeway. Nearly flattened by something called a truck—a technological marvel beyond her comprehension—she is rescued by a kindly man, Frank (Common), who becomes her sole guide to a strange new world. The hard switch from plantation life to 1973 Savannah is expectantly jolting. However, Alice is a sponge. We watch her patiently process a torrent of information: about the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, the burgeoning Black Power Movement of the 70s, the music of Stevie Wonder, Pam Grier, Diana Ross, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and many others. Still fish out of water, yet emboldened by progress, Alice is determined to exact revenge on those who duped her, and to liberate those she had left behind.
This is a meaty role for Palmer, and her relentless commitment is a seam-gathering glue. Since her breakout role in Akeelah and the Bee, her It factor has been ironclad. Palmer is a star, if not quite yet on the technical level of a household name, but Jordan Peele’s Nope, which is releasing this summer, is sure to kick things into high gear. Beyond acting, she’s also an agent for change in every sense. Palmer is out there moving the culture forward as this generation’s top-line trailblazer.
Alice opens in select theaters on March 18th.
Hi, Keke. Happy International Women’s Day.
Aw, thank you!
What a perfect day to be talking about Alice.
Did you have role models like Alice growing up?
My role models growing up were definitely my mom and my grandmother. But then from a professional or a creative standpoint, it was people like Queen Latifah or Brandy or Raven-Symoné or Kyla Pratt, just in terms of representation and seeing what I was also capable of.
When did you first realize that you might want to be a role model yourself?
I became very aware of it after I did Akeelah and the Bee, because after that, I would visit a lot of schools. My parents always kept telling me: “As an entertainer and having a platform, you have to give back. You have to make yourself available to people that maybe aren’t able to see people like you on a daily basis, or maybe they don’t even have the awareness that someone like you exist.” So you have to go and reach out to show what’s possible for them. That was just something my parents always explained to me in my career, in my industry. Obviously as I got older, I started to realize how true it was when I would meet fans and people would come up to me and say, “It’s because of you that I thought I could go do x, y, and z.” And while that’s a lot of pressure and I can’t solely exist in that place, there’s a huge part of me that wants to be a part of that narrative.
Krystin [Ver Linden] said that, growing up, she had very few role models outside of family that looked like her. That watching Pam Grier in Coffy allowed her to suddenly carry herself differently in school. So that’s what’s at stake, right? It’s not a small thing. It’s a huge thing.
Oh my gosh. It’s important, right? And you don’t think about it until you think about it and then you realize just how important it is. The way that it is shown in Alice is important: her seeing Diana Ross, her seeing Pam Grier, and her seeing Angela Davis. I think what that does for her is a reminder to black, white, and otherwise that representation is important for these reasons. People have to be able to see themselves in order to know what it is they can achieve.
I appreciated that passing of the torch element to this. Alice levels up from witnessing these cultural icons and touchstone movements, and in the end, she becomes that herself.
Exactly! And that’s what life is! That’s what it is. That’s how it is. That’s why we have to do that. Because Alice is “born” from those women having taken chances and embodying the courage. When you shine your light, you unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
This is a wild backdrop for a movie, made more stunning by the fact that it’s based on true accounts. You once said, “It’s not always sad when you look into the past. It’s where you find hope and positivity for the future.” I think Alice is a testament to that. I wonder if there was a specific moment you can recall where you felt reassured that the tone regarding the theme of slavery was where it needed to be, and what message that was a vehicle for.
Such a great question. That was expressed to me in a couple of different ways. The first one would be when Alice is looking at the history books. Also, there’s a scene at the diner—I don’t want to give anything away—that I felt expressed the movie was where it needed to be. And it’s in the beginning of the movie, right before Alice decides to leave the plantation, where she’s having dinner with the master. That was important as well, to showcase elements of this time period that will have the film stand on its own amongst other films like it. Man, it’s so many things.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that there is levity to this film. There’s an overriding uplift.
Something struck me watching The Drew Barrymore Show. She was in character while talking to you so it’s partly a skit, but what you discussed was very real: pain and laughter coexisting. You said that in order to go all the way to the left, you also need to be able to go all the way to the right. That, to me, feels like Alice’s journey because you have to witness the brutality in order to appreciate her transformation. She is a show of human strength.
That’s it! I felt that. Absolutely, I could. That’s why I wanted to tell the story, being black and knowing that experience as it pertains to identity, history, and culture. It’s important for me to exist in the space, to say that there should be no shame where hardship is, because hardship creates a pathway for deliverance. You can’t have the good without the bad. It’s that polarity in life, and not allowing it to personally hold you down but to instead use it as a reason to propel you forward.
The movie is timely considering that it’s so much about freedom, freedom of thought, and self-empowerment. In the past few years alone, through cancel culture, work-from-home culture, and with everything that’s happening in Russia right now with censorship, life has become so much about what we’re willing to tolerate. Because there’s no going back on truth. I wonder if it’s also something to worry about—that it’s always going to be timely.
Yeah! I think that’s a big part of Alice—that it is always going to exist. I think that’s also why the movie is so important to me, as it pertains to my generation and Gen Z. I want us all to accept that life is always going to have polarities and there’s always going to be some oppression to fight against. The idea of eradicating all oppression is not what should keep you going. It’s about the hope for a better tomorrow. There’s hope that things can get better. That has to be enough because if the only thing that’s driving you is, “Everything’s gonna be done!” that’s just not realistic. You’re always gonna end up hitting a wall of disappointment and just hopelessness. But if you realize that it’s about the journey, about helping who you can when you can, about being good to your neighbor, about being good to yourself, about keeping your spirit up, and you give yourself personal freedom that allows us to all benefit, then I think we can sustain our faith a little bit more. Then it’s based on something that is about striving as opposed to an ending.
Where do you think Alice is after the film, or what do you hope that she went off to do?
It’s so interesting that you ask that because I do often think about my characters after I do something, or compare their lives to my own and wonder how they might exist in my world. Maybe this is just because it’s what the actual woman [Mae Louise Miller] did, but I would imagine Alice living for herself. I remember talking to Krystin about the actual woman. I’m like, “Did she have any kids? Did she ever get married?” And she said, “No, the woman just went to school. She just lived for herself. She existed independently.” I can only imagine what freedom that must’ve given her, and so I’d imagine that Alice did the same.
In 2017, you published your memoir, I Don’t Belong to You. That was preceded by your single in 2015 of the same name. I was thinking that could be the alternate title for Alice.
Ohhh! [laughs] Yes, I’m very much like Alice, okay? I don’t belong to any-one.
So there’s a presidential election going on in South Korea right now, and just yesterday, one of the top candidates retracted an interview where he had said that he’s a feminist. Going back on something like that just stinks of pandering to me. Shouldn’t we all be feminists?
I think we’re in the era of pandering. There’s a lot of pandering in this era, right? Because nobody wants to get cancelled, and everybody wants to be relatable. I think, above all else, I would rather strive for authenticity and honesty. In my heart of hearts—I’m not even being biased—I one hundred percent think that all people should be feminists like you’re saying because it helps the world go round. We’ve become so one-sided as a world, and for there to not be enough space created for women, we actually hold humanity back. There’s a reason that we all exist together. There’s a reason why we have men and why we have women, and obviously now we have them and they as well. There’s a reason for this, right? We need all that energy to coexist because that’s what’s going to help us make the most balanced decisions. Living in a world that’s constantly built off of misogyny and patriarchy, I wish that people would be a little bit more intelligent in knowing that that one energy is not going to be enough to push us forward. We need multiple energies, and we need to use both feminine and masculine in order to create a better world.
It’s still crazy that it’s not enough to ask, “Don’t you have a mother? A daughter? A sister?”
It is! But some people only see certain people in a certain way. They feel that the necessity of them is compartmentalized. That’s where misogyny comes from. It’s not so much “I don’t want women around.” It’s “I only want women to exist in this way.” That’s where the battle then lies.