After "Django Unchained" and Lee Daniels' "The Butler," both informed by the shameful legacy of slavery and institutionalized injustice in America, you might think you have satisfied your quota of viewing incidents of racial hatred, sexual abuse and ugly brutality in the past year.
You would be wrong. While both of those box-office and critical successes offered compensation for their heavy subject matter with outbreaks of humor and a hip attitude, "12 Years a Slave" is a somber, meditative, almost poetic film that delivers the horrors of bondage stripped down and head-on.
For once, history is presented as personal and immediate, not a saga relying on scholarly works and court records à la "Amistad." The source is a rare first-hand account based on the best-selling 19th-century memoir written by Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who suddenly had his liberty torn away after being kidnapped and sold for slave labor in Louisiana.
While "Django" and "The Butler" were slaps in the face of inequality, this is a punch to the gut. Don't let those pastoral passages of Southern skies framed by gnarled tree limbs adorned in lacy Spanish moss fool you: they seem to exist merely as a placeholder, so that viewers can catch their breath from what they've just witnessed. Even Mel Gibson, whose unbearable 5-minute whipping scene in "The Passion of the Christ" set the standard for such graphic cinematic punishment, would be aghast if not envious of how British director Steve McQueen ensures that the audience palpably feels the flesh-ripping agony of every lashing and beating on screen.