HERE'S WHAT the audience knows going into 12 Years a Slave:
Solomon (the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man, living in the North, who is abducted into slavery in 1841. Twelve years later, he's released. During those 12 years, he is a slave. He has no judicial recourse, no way to prove that he is who he says he is—a free man—because in the eyes of the world in which he finds himself, the world of slavers and plantation owners, he isn't who he says he is. The right of self-definition is stripped from him as soon as he crosses the Mason-Dixon. "You're a slave," declares a slaver named Freeman (Paul Giamatti). "You're a Georgia slave."
In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon is something of a stand-in for the modern viewer: He's intelligent, he's educated, and most crucially, he's attuned to the horror and injustice that surrounds him. Our attempts to comprehend life under slavery parallel his own: We share his terror when he wakes up in chains after a night of heavy drinking with two friendly-seeming white men. We understand his urge to fight back against those who have separated him from his family. We chafe to find him at the mercy of men who are his physical and intellectual inferior. And, through his eyes, the utterly schizophrenic nature of slavery is revealed.
After he's abducted, Solomon is sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who represents the best-case version of a plantation owner: Gentlemanly and generous, he recognizes Solomon's intelligence, even seems fond of him. But a kindly slave owner is still a slave owner, and a white man's favor is no guarantee of safety.
Soon, Solomon lands on the wrong side of a vicious overseer (Paul Dano), who tries to have him hanged. Another overseer prevents Solomon's death, but leaves him hanging from a tree by his neck, toes barely touching the ground, shifting his weight on tippy toes to prevent strangulation—and for hours, as Solomon hangs, the other slaves go about their business, casting occasional, furtive looks in Solomon's direction. The scene is remarkable, and it sums up what's remarkable about the film: 12 Years a Slave captures the extent to which the normalization of inhumanity infects and implicates every person it touches.
That pathology comes to the forefront when Solomon is sold to Epps (Michael Fassbender), a deranged drunk who quotes Bible scriptures at his slaves when he's not raping and beating them. Unlike Solomon's first owner, there's no veneer of gentility here—only a batshit-crazy white dude acting out his depravity on the humans he owns. Because he can.
This is not a horror film; 12 Years a Slave doesn't attempt to shock the audience with scenes of graphic violence, like Django Unchained did. Nor is it manipulative Oscar-bait; director Steve McQueen is restrained and compositional in his approach to Solomon's story. If anything, 12 Years downplays the inner life of Solomon in order to focus on the circumstances in which he finds himself. It's docudramatic in nature, attempting to capture, with some degree of realism, what life as a slave might have been like. And it succeeds—we know how Solomon's story begins, and we know how it ends, but we stay riveted through the perilous, appalling middle.