We expect the lashings, the leg irons, the cruelty and injustice of it all. But what Steve McQueen's brilliant “12 Years a Slave” does for our understanding of that “peculiar” institution is the utter hopelessness of those enslaved.
It lets a GPS- and smartphone-addicted generation understand what it was like to not know where you are, to realize the helplessness of attempting to run away or steal paper to write a plea for help.
And it forces those who would rationalize the era's mores and religious “justification” for human beings enslaving and torturing one another to see that there is no rationalization for it, that there were many who could tell right from wrong, even back then.
Chiwetel Ejiofor conjures up just the right measure of dignity and refinement as Solomon Northup, a New York musician, husband and father who was tricked into taking an engagement in Washington, D.C., along the border between free and slave states.
Yes, this really happened in 1841: A black American who had never been a slave was kidnapped, smuggled south and sold into slavery. He struggled to keep his spirits up and his hope alive, even as others around him committed suicide or fell into inconsolable weeping at having their children sold away from them.
The beauty of this movie is in how we identify with Northup and come to understand the awful effects his loss of liberty had not just on him, but on the moral relativists and outright sadists who ran machinery of slavery. Even a so-called “good master” (the terrific Benedict Cumberbatch plays one) had to embrace an “it's just business” myopia about what he was doing to other human beings. Even a “legitimate businessman” (Paul Giamatti) had to close his eyes to the unspeakable cruelty of breaking up families, to become less human by treating other humans as livestock.