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Required Viewing: '12 Years a Slave'

Director Steve McQueen reveals one man’s terrifying detour through captivity to redemption

Rating: R     Running Time: 133 minutes

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Alfre Woodard

Director: Steve McQueen

There are great movies, and there are important movies. 12 Years a Slave is both.

Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) evokes searing drama from this fact-based story of a man tricked into slavery 20 years before the Civil War. Drawn from the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup — a musician living as a free black man in upstate New York with his wife and two children in 1841 — 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing film that should be required viewing for all Americans.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave (Pictorial Press/Alamy)

Pictorial Press/Alamy

Chiwetel Ejiofor and a sinister Michael Fassbender.

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When Northup journeys to Washington, D.C., with two acquaintances who claim to have arranged a concert for him there, he is drugged.

He wakes to find himself naked and in chains, soon to be shipped to the South, where he is sold into slavery. If he's to survive, another slave informs Northup, he must never admit he knows how to read and write. And so, for the next 12 agonizing years, Solomon Northup conceals his true identity.

McQueen follows Northup's ordeal through scene after scene where you want to look away but cannot. Northup and his fellow slaves endure torture and anguish. The director's camera unflinchingly captures backs laid bare by savage beatings; the torment of women whose children are ripped from their grasp; the cavalier rationalizations offered by members of a society that refuses to recognize right from wrong.

McQueen's imagery is the work of an artist, and his masterly handling of this material puts him far ahead of other directors who have tried to tackle oft-examined historical themes such as slavery in America.

Equally inspired is his casting: Michael Fassbender, who also starred in Shame, plays Edwin Epps, the most ruthless of the landowners Northup must work for. His cruelty is fueled by self-hatred and alcohol, especially as he forces himself repeatedly on a young slave named Patsey (talented up-and-comer Lupita Nyong'o), who begs Northup to end her misery by drowning her in the river. Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson of Serenity), suspecting her husband's fondness for Patsey, forces him to punish her, which he accomplishes by ensnaring Northup in their twisted triangle.

Paul Giamatti (Sideways) plays a conniving slave trader, justifying his livelihood as merely the custom of the times. Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) is a lower-level manager who terrorizes the field hands simply because he can, while Alfre Woodard (Cross Creek), once a slave herself, has become her master's mistress, not above keeping slaves in her household (though she treats them kindly). Brad Pitt, a producer of the movie, also plays a small part, as does the currently ubiquitous actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

And then there is Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster), delivering the performance of a lifetime as Northup.

Ejiofor manages to convey the bitter injustice of his character's predicament, especially having once enjoyed liberty, in a way that viewers — white or black — can deeply identify with. In one unforgettable scene, a noose, tightened around Ejiofor's throat just enough to allow him to haltingly gasp for air, is positioned so that his toes barely touch the earth for hours; a shift in balance and he'd be gone. Our common humanity compels us to watch and empathize.

Throughout his enslavement, Ejiofor moves with shoulders slumped and head bowed, yet his eyes convey not just sadness and fear, but hope and rage.

When he finally breaks into song in the fields with the other captive laborers, we witness the compassion that was so absent in the free population of the antebellum South. And as liberation beckons for Northup, Ejiofor and McQueen leave us feeling the only thing we can about slavery's taint on our history: shame.

Meg Grant is West Coast Editor of AARP The Magazine.