It speaks to the courage and resilience of one man, the savagery of many, and the potential, for both good and for ill, in us all.
In its own saintly manner, it's as exploitative as anything critics accused Django Unchained of being, minus Tarantino's eye for idiosyncrasy and sense of humor.
The cumulative emotional effect is devastating: the final scenes are as angry, as memorable, as overwhelming as anything modern cinema has to offer.
So overpowering is this film's simple, horrible, and almost entirely true story that it's hard to get enough distance on 12 Years a Slave to poke at its inner workings.
Every scene of 12 Years a Slave, and almost every shot, conveys some penetrating truth about America's original sin.
The power of McQueen's movie is in its declaratory style: This happened. That is all, and that is everything.
It is a film that necessity and education demand seeing.
It provokes recognition in us of the very heart of darkness. It makes the unimaginable imaginable.
"12 Years a Slave" isn't easy to watch, and it shouldn't be; it's one man's tragedy, but it's also the tragedy of countless thousands of souls beaten down, literally and metaphorically.