We expect the lashings, the leg irons, the cruelty and injustice of it all. But what Steve McQueens brilliant 12 Years a Slave does for our understanding of that peculiar institution is the utter hopelessness of those enslaved.
It lets a GPS/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 eras 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 its 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.
And then there were the monsters. Paul Dano is hateful perfection as the classic low-class overseer, brutal to his charges because he needs somebody to look down on and lord over. A wild-eyed Michael Fassbender plays an alcoholic Louisiana landowner who keeps an enslaved paramour (Lupita Nyongo, a revelation) whom his resentful wife (Sarah Paulson) insists on forcing her husband to torture in his sober moments.
Its a challenging, serious and scholarly film, not the blacksploitation burlesque that was Django Unchained.