To describe even one moment of this movie as a “kick” would be obscene. It evokes the lives of African-American slaves as the nightmare it was, with violence spun into a daily fabric of brutality, one that’s neither heightened nor exaggerated, just scarily real. Forget the earnest and epochal (but, in hindsight, not really raw enough) TV mini-series Roots, forget the baroque exploitation of Mandingo, and — despite the overstated accolades it received — forget Django. As a drama of the slave experience, 12 Years a Slave renders them all irrelevant. It is a new movie landmark of cruelty and transcendence.

12 Years a Slave lets us stare at the primal sin of America with open eyes, and at moments it is hard to watch, yet it’s a movie of such humanity and grace that at every moment, you feel you’re seeing something essential. It is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s extraordinary performance that holds the movie together, and that allows us to watch it without blinking. He plays Solomon with a powerful inner strength, yet he never soft-pedals the silent nightmare that is Solomon’s daily existence. The ultimate cruelty he’s subjected to isn’t the beatings or the humiliation. It is that he is ripped from his family, blockaded away from all that he is. - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly (x)

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