This is the one.
This is the film that will top, or be near the top of, lists of the year's best movies. Its journey will certainly include a trip to next year's Oscars (I count at least four sure-bet statuettes, including Best Picture). But 12 Years a Slave, a definitive work about America's greatest shame, is much more than just the best movie of the year.
I've always been of the belief that most great films live in the heart. But a select few also settle into a corner of our soul. That's where, for instance, you might find On the Waterfront or To Kill a Mockingbird. And 12 Years a Slave should fit perfectly well alongside films of consequence and substance.
To be clear, I'm not just urging you to see this movie; it's a requirement. I've seen the film twice now, and on both occasions was among audience members who were openly sobbing. A word of caution: You must be prepared to watch this film, not necessarily due to its brutality, but due to how essentially personal its story is.
After seeing scores of other films dealing with slavery over the decades, I struggled to understand why this particular movie left me so devastated. Somewhere in the middle of my second viewing of 12 Years a Slave, it hit me like a thunderbolt: It's because this is the story of a free man. And while white audiences can't be expected to fully understand the black experience, the story of Solomon Northup, a husband, father and accomplished violinist forced into slavery, somehow feels viscerally intimate. His freedom becomes our freedom; and his loss is, in many ways, the loss that our nation never recovered from. You may wince at the exposition of Northup's suffering, but your soul will tell you not to look away.
"The truth is the truth," director Steve McQueen told Boise Weekly, when we asked him about adapting Northup's 1853 autobiography. Following the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, McQueen said that he wasn't necessarily interested in telling a horrific story. "But certainly some things, some people aren't going to be able to sit through. What I'm interested in is not to exploit, but to project it in a light that is understandable."
It's also important, and a bit telling, to point out that McQueen, a Brit, has crafted such an important film about America.
"Our director [McQueen] asked the question: 'Why are there not more American movies about slavery?' It's a good question," said Brad Pitt, who co-stars in 12 Years a Slave and, more importantly, is one of the film's producers. "This is a rare film that only comes around once or so every decade."
Pitt is part of a beautifully balanced cast that includes Michael Fassbender (the performance of his career), Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard. But it is Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Northup, that you will not soon forget.
Repeat after me: CHEW-i-tell EDGE-i-oh-for. When more than a few reporters in Toronto butchered the pronunciation of his name, he laughed it off.
"I've heard worse," he said.
But you'll want to know how to pronounce his name when you fill out next year's Oscar pool. He's a shoo-in for Best Actor. When asked about a trip to the Academy Awards, Ejiofor shrugged off the possibility.
"Making this film has been an extraordinary journey," he said. "So anything else is gravy."
He's right. Long after the praises are sung and awards are doled out, 12 Years a Slave will remain one of the best films of this or any other year.