In 1841, an educated, well-to-do, freeborn black man with a wife and children in upstate New York, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), was lured from his Saratoga Springs home to work as a musician in Washington, D.C., where he was kidnapped and shipped in shackles and chains to New Orleans.
Renamed Platt Hamilton by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti), he was sold to genteel mill owner/Baptist minister William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who was impressed with Platt's skilled fiddle-playing. But Platt's obvious intelligence infuriated Ford's brutal, spiteful overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano), who hung him from a tree, forcing him to struggle to keep his footing for hours. To save Platt from another lynching, Ford sold him to despicably sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). That's where Platt met an itinerant Canadian carpenter, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), an abolitionist who promised to contact Northrup's family, leading to his eventual release from bondage.
A British actor of Nigerian descent, Ejiofor ("American Gangster") embodies imprisoned Northrup's mental suffering and physical torment, displaying the dignified resiliency that enabled him to endure and survive. Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised, Yale School of Drama graduate Lupita Nyong'o delivers a heart-wrenching portrayal of Patsey, the long-suffering, cotton-picking slave who becomes psychopathic Epps' mistress, arousing the ire of his refined, yet intolerant wife (Sarah Paulson).
Based on Northrup's historically complex memoir, published in 1853, a year after "Uncle Tom's Cabin," it's episodically adapted by British-born director Steve McQueen ("Shame," "Hunger") and novelist John Ridley ("Red Tails," "Three Kings"), realistically photographed by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt at four Louisiana plantations and sensitively scored by Hans Zimmer. Reminiscent of the TV mini-series "Roots," it's a heavy, serious, horrifyingly authentic and emotionally devastating slave drama, which, along with 2013's "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and "Fruitvale Station," unflinchingly chronicles the African-American experience.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "12 Years a Slave" is a savage, uncompromising 8. Gruesomely cringe-inducing, this true tale will shock you and anger you, but it may also touch you very deeply.