With his first two films, Hunger and Shame, British director Steve McQueen showed a masterful command of style and an ambition to tackle important topics. His third movie, 12 Years a Slave, takes on the institution of American slavery, a subject that comes so loaded with potential blowback that few artists ever attempt to deal with it head-on. He succeeds so strongly that the film’s power is only mitigated, and not undone, by a third act that fails as storytelling even though it’s likely historically accurate.
The uniformly excellent cast is headed by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1840s America. He makes his living ...