12 Years a Slave opens Friday

12 Years a Slave, the latest from British filmmaker Steve McQueen, has been swimming in unanimous praise since it reduced people to tears at film festivals earlier this year. More than one writer on the film has declared the Oscar contest “over.”

Still, the mainstream (white) media seems to be overdoing the raves; there’s a tinge of guilt in the huzzahs, which could be a way of saying, “Hey, we’re sorry about all that, black people.”

That said, the movie deserves its kudos. 12 Years a Slave is indeed a sophisticated, unnervingly visceral cinematic reminder that slavery did happenand we should never forget it. It’s a fitting subject for McQueen, who has a knack for films about men trapped in hellish situations, whether it’s prison (Hunger) or sex addiction (Shame).

Working from a script by the talented John Ridley (whose credits include Three Kings and Undercover Brother), McQueen tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A well-respected, fiddle-playing family man living in 19th-century New York, Northrup’s misfortune begins when two white scoundrels (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) trick him into taking a touring gig, whereupon he’s drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery under the name Platt.

It’s fascinating to watch Ejiofor do his thing as Northup. Helpless in every sense of the word, longing to get back to his wife and kids (one of them played by Beasts of the Southern Wild girl wonder Quvenzhane Wallis), Northup nevertheless keeps a smarteven cunninghead once he becomes Southern plantation chattel. As much physical abuse as Northup receives, it’s more wrenching to see him in moments of solitude, his expression barely concealing the hopelessness he’s trying his damnedest not to completely succumb to.

Northup becomes the property of a somewhat sympathetic preacher (Benedict Cumberbatch). But after a face-off with a weaselly slave driver (Paul Dano), Northrup ends up at the plantation of Bible-thumping sociopath Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps’ land is a temple of misery, with slaves whipped for not picking enough cotton. Epps keeps a captive mistress (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o), which brings out the worst in his wife (Sarah Paulson). Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt and, too briefly, Michael K. Williams also turn up during the film.

It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t the first time Northup’s story has been toldor even the first by a black filmmaker: The great Gordon Parks (Shaft) directed a toned-down PBS movie in 1984 called Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. McQueen, however, takes advantage of his widescreen canvas, showing the inhumanity Northup and others experienced. When people say the movie is hard to watch, there’s good reason for that: Everything is in your face. McQueen stages scenes where slaves are whipped in the background while others go about their daily routine, illustrating how commonplace the brutality was. It serves, too, as a commentary on the institutional racism that subtly goes on under our noses every single day.

From the haunting, harrowing way 12 Years a Slave tells it, racism is as American as cherry pie, as H. Rap Brown might have put it. It’s so deeply rooted in our historical fabric, it’s still impossible to shake off (what’s up, Don Yelton?!) even in this age of Obama in the White House, Jay-Z on the cover of Vanity Fair and white girls on Vine trying to twerk like sistas. Through the amazing, appalling story of Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave recreates how painfully wicked our country once was.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Land of the unfree.”