Steve McQueen’s third film stuns with its performances, power and relevance.

Released during the Fall ‘Awards Season’ and fresh off a film festival run full of standing ovations and weeping crowds, 12 Years a Slave, at first, doesn’t look like an Oscar-worthy film; it looks like an OSCAR-WORTHY FILM, in blinking neon. But 12 Years a Slave is actually far better than most Oscar-winners, specifically because it doesn’t simply use slavery as a chance to wallow in misery or be shocked by the sadism of familiar actors in bushy sideburns. Instead, British director McQueen turns the real-life tale of Solomon Northup — a free  black man who, in 1845, was hired to play music in Washington D.C., then illegally abducted and sold into slavery — into something much more than a moving museum exhibit. He creates a story about a society and a social order, where the brutal and vicious is commonplace and expected in the name of cheap labor and privilege for the few.  Most historical dramas skim over the past, illustrating how different it was from now; in 12 Years a Slave, the point of it all draws blood when you reflect on how Solomon’s 1845 isn’t that dissimilar to our 2013.

Chiwitel Ejiofor plays Solomon, and it’s a role that any actor would be both terrified to take and excited to tackle. A father and husband, Solomon enjoys a position of privilege in Saratoga New York; lured South by work and dulled by wine, he awakes in chains. Northup’s story is a true one, later recorded in his book of the same title as this film, and when he is sold into slavery, Ejiofor soon goes from strength to submission. Author John Ridley adapted the book for the screen, and the script wisely repeats many of Northup’s words verbatim; the elegance and meter of the spoken dialogue is counterpoint to the cruelty and banality of the action.

There will be inevitable comparisons or contrasts with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and if I had to sum that difference up, it would come in how Django is about the pop-culture poetry (for lack of a better word) of slavery: Not what slavery was, but rather, all the ways we tried (and failed) to articulate it in the movies. 12 Years, on the other hand, is about the politics and prose of slavery — transactions, power structures, laws as precise and elaborate as they are blunt and wrong.  The film I thought about the most in relation to 12 Years was, tellingly, not Gone with the Wind or The Color Purple but instead Far From Heaven, another chronicle of American history designed specifically to make us wonder how our own era will look when it, too, becomes history.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and the rest of the technical crew shoot in a plainspoken, unadorned style. There are no swooping overhead shots here, and the sense of composition is more unforced than not, while still being artistic; when Solomon is strung up and left to dangle, the chill comes not just in his struggles and his grunts, but in the way everyone else keeps working, calmly, all about him.  McQueen and Ridley also aren’t afraid of the grim, psychosexual and more perverse aspects of slavery as well. (To those who think the violence in this film is strong, it should be noted that the violence involved in actual slavery was far, far worse, and real.) Occasionally, the lack of budget is on-screen (we never see the circus Northup plays for, and a Mississippi riverboat is implied through its paddlewheel) and the film’s other great failing, ironic in light of the title, is that it doesn’t do a very good job of conveying how much time actually passes during the events in the film; when a friendly abolitionist finally helps him, you think “Oh, that was 12 years?”

The cast is exemplary, whether in small sharp shocks like Paul Giamatti’s hearty slaver and Alfre Woodward’s ex-slave who now gets to be served on thanks to her relations with a White master, or in longer performances like Michael Fassbinder’s scripture-shouting sadist or Lupita Nyongo’s turn as a slave whose hard work doesn’t protect her from either Fassbinder’s lusts or his wife Sarah Paulson’s rage. Ejiofor, however, is the film’s focus and central pillar (the camera rarely strays more than 20 feet from him), and his work is what makes the film come alive. Solomon hides that he can read and write, but his innate intelligence and kindness are harder to mute — and just as risky to his safety. As Fassbinder’s slaveowner notes, “Whatever the circumstances, you are an exceptional nigger … But I fear no good will come of it.” It’s that edge, defined by the space and the gulf between exceptional and nigger, that makes the line cut to the bone.

In McQueen’s film, you can see the shape and systems of today under the manners and mores of the 1800’s — how the luxuries of some are paid for with the poverty of others, how some systems make even cruelty feel like a kindness, the way religion is both a comfort for the afflicted and a cudgel raised against them. 12 Years a Slave isn’t a traditional end-of-year movie specifically in that it doesn’t function like the normal big Hollywood bedtime story of long, long ago when things were bad and how they’re better now; instead, it shakes you awake to look at the world outside the theater with new understanding and a different perspective. With its violence, viciousness and unflinching suggestion that America was not (and is not) perfect and does (and will) require true work to make better, 12 Years a Slave probably isn’t going to win a Best Picture Oscar; it’ll just have to settle for being great, important art.