There are a handful of movies that earn 5 stars for their sheer entertainment value– the Silver Linings Playbooks and Frozens of the world. And then there are movies for which the whole star system seems woefully inadequate. Movies that are important, essential, and should be required viewing. Movies that shine a new light (or a more focused one) on a particularly difficult aspect of human nature– an aspect that is clearly what Satayana was talking about in his mantra, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

12 Years a Slave is one of those films– a gut-wrenching, psyche-tearing movie that is not only one of the finest movies made in the last decade but easily the most indelible one ever made about America’s darkest chapter.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Salt) stars as Solomon Northup, a free black man who is living quietly with his wife and two children in 1841 Saratoga, New York, when he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Over the course of the next two hours, his story unfolds in harrowing fashion– beginning with his being put up for sale, literally like a piece of meat, in Louisiana to Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). From there, Northup ends up at the cotton plantation of the vicious Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender), where he barely survives for most of a decade.

The plot, though, is secondary to the horrors of slavery that are vividly presented throughout Northup’s captivity. Children are sold away from their mothers, whips and lashes fly with reckless abandon, and misery is Northup’s only companion.

Director Steve McQueen (Shame) has crafted a masterpiece of the highest order. He spares the audience nothing as he presents an unflinching look at slavery’s impact, not only on the slaves but on the slaveowners, too, who are presented in varying degrees of brutality. McQueen doesn’t compromise in his production, and the result is as terrifying as it is wrenching, but there’s not a minute that doesn’t demand your full attention.

As perfectly engrossing and insightful as Ejiofor’s performance is (rivaled only by Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, in terms of powerhouse acting this year), I can only imagine the daily mental anguish Fassbender went through as he geared up for his character to whip, rape, torture, and otherwise completely degrade fellow human beings. It’s one thing to portray a victim but, I would think, something else entirely to portray one of the most realistically despicable human beings ever portrayed on screen. And Epps’ complete obliviousness to his caustic character only augments Fassbender’s performance.

There’s no doubt that 12 Years a Slave is as important as it is expertly done, but trying to fathom the fact that this one story actually happened, not only to Northup but to hundreds of slaves in America, takes some serious inner fortitude. And even though I can’t imagine sitting down to see 12 Years a Slave again (anytime soon, at least), there’s no question that I won’t be the only person emerging from the theater a better person for having seen it.

5/5 stars