There'll be two kinds of viewers of 12 Years a Slave: the many who didn't realize American slavery was so terrible, and the few, like Henry Louis Gates, who'll point out that what went on was far worse than what we see here.
Director Steve McQueen's third and best film sources a real-life narrative, a bestseller of the 1850s. A free man of New York named Solomon Northrup was knocked out with a Mickey Finn and shanghaied to New Orleans, where he was sold. During his enslavement, Northrup was traded back and forth among cotton, pine and sugar planters. Some masters were relatively civilized (Benedict Cumberbatch plays one). Others were corroded utterly.
As Master Epps, one of the latter, Michael Fassbender embodies a soul caught in a chasm of evil: sadistic yet silly with his selective religion. There are times when watching this monster that it becomes clear why actors often end up with troubled lives: how could you give yourself up to be a sounding-board for these kind of figures and come back from it whole?
The movie is alive with knockout character acting, including a psycho overseer (Paul Dano), Epps' dead-eyed, vicious wife (Sarah Paulson) and Brad Pitt in a graceful, one-scene role as a self-amused Canadian carpenter. Star Chiwetel Ejiofor's moral firmness, compassion and natural nobility are perfect for conveying what the institution did to the people it devoured.
12 Years a Slave is a timely movie—even today, revisionists are trying to rewrite these horrors. Such liars are accessories after the fact to our national shame, and they're fools to deny that the stench of our forefathers' atrocities doesn't linger in the air of 2013 America.
'12 Years a Slave' opens Friday, Nov. 1, at Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa.