In 1841 a violinist and free man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from Saratoga, New York, with a wife and two young children at home, was lured to our nation's capital under the guise of good paying work where he was kidnapped, sold up the river, and endured the titular hell on a New Orleans plantation until his deliverance. Based on a purportedly true memoir by Solomon Northrup, which was released just after Uncle Tom's Cabin and helped to inflame the slavery debate in the years leading up to the Civil War, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching account of America's original sin by director Steve McQueen. I walked out of the theater with ambivalent feelings about the film, one being roundly heralded as "the definitive movie on the institution of slavery." First, following Shame we again have an unflagging excoriation of American society by a troupe of Brits. Secondly, even though 12 Years is impeccably crafted and beautifully acted by Ejiofor (it is so nice to see this long time supporter get a leading role he deserves) I'm not sure what it's function is: The movie is too brutal and visceral to be an entertainment. It is not educational, these lessons are familiar to anyone with some semblance of education. Lastly, it doesn't even work as some kind of cathartic experience. I found myself being kept at a distance from the material, as I anticipated the next act of violent cruelty, and couldn't even share in the emotional rewards it should have offered. There are also some lesser quibbles too, such as the arcane dialogue which the cast occasionally struggles with and a celebrity supporting cast which, even when the performances are good (Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch), also serves to take you out of the movie. In the end I think we have to ask ourselves if this horrific reminder to times not so long ago actually tells us anything new about our past or present or is this really just a liberal guilt trip?