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With three features under his belt, Mc Queen has established his auteurship as a unflinching tackler of difficult subjects with a humanistic edge: discomfort cinema, if you will.

But this supporting crew all take a back seat the complicated tango played out by Northup's most malicious master, Edwin Epps—who is given more than a few shades of gray beyond villainous black by Mc Queen's favorite collaborator, Michael Fassbender—and his abused slave mistress, Patsey, brought to life with heart-wrenching honesty by newcomer Lupita Nyong'o.The Ebert Club is our hand-picked selection of content for Ebert fans.You will receive a weekly newsletter full of movie-related tidbits, articles, trailers, even the occasional streamable movie.But by the time that Brad Pitt, one of the film's producers, arrives late in the tale with a highly disruptive cameo as a Canadian carpenter who provides hope to Northup that the end to his decade-plus nightmare is nigh, most viewers will be too overwhelmed and stunned to much care.And as they wipe their tears and gather the strength to leave their seats, their minds will be filled with one thought: That they have actually witnessed American slavery in all its appalling horror for the very first time.His goal is not to titillate but to make us feel uneasy, like unwitting voyeurs forced to observe humankind at its most debased and objectified.

It doesn't take long before unclothed bodies show up onscreen in "12 Years a Slave," as male and female cane-field laborers must wash together outside in a yard while the world passes by.

"Shame" exposed the corrosive outer limits of sex addiction.

For the even more challenging "12 Years a Slave," Mc Queen follows Northup—whose papers are stolen and name changed to Platt, making it all the more difficult to ever confirm his free status—as he is passed among plantation owners whose personas range from benevolent to monstrous. For him, naked flesh is an artistic medium, like modeling clay in the hands of a socially aware sculptor.

You wouldn't know it from all the film festival raves for "12 Years a Slave," but there are a few missteps.

As Epps' shrewish wife, Sarah Paulson's Mary might as well be called Maleficent, given her evil character's lack of nuance.

Paul Giamatti lends a grubby gruffness to his all-business slave trader.