12 Years a Slave

Based on a true story, this commanding drama by Steve McQueen (Hunger) is the most uncompromising movie about American slavery I’ve ever seen, which might have something to do with the fact that McQueen is black and almost every other filmmaker to tackle the subject has been white. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northrup, a free man from Saratoga Springs, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Aside from a northern abolitionist (played by Brad Pitt) who arrives very late in the story, there are no sympathetic white characters; the slaveholders are, at best, high-minded souls who fail to act on their principles (Benedict Cumberbatch as Northrup’s guilt-ridden first owner) or, at worst, relentless sadists (Michael Fassbender as a pious plantation owner whose lust for one of his slaves is indistinguishable from his savagery toward her). Slavery here is not only a great moral darkness but a sweeping canvas for depicting the emotional deformities of the people who enforced and exploited the practice. Among the first-rate cast are Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, and Alfre Woodard.