It's an amazing story, none of it good, says Brad Pitt to Chiwetel Ejiofor after hearing his tale in "12 Years a Slave."
The same might be said of this remarkable movie, if it weren't so breathtaking to watch. Sometimes gorgeous, sometimes grotesque - sometimes in the same scene - it is based on an 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup, a prominent resident of Saratoga, N.Y., who was lured to Washington, D.C., drugged, and sold into slavery. He would spend the next decade in a series of Southern plantations, enduring a form of life barely recognizable as human in our own times.
Directed by black English filmmaker Steve McQueen from an almost Shakespearean screenplay by John Ridley, the film is unsparing in its depiction of the horrors of slavery, even as it sets them in incredibly sensual cinematography.
The film has the natural wisdom of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," intermixed with raw plantation life. Ingenuity was required just to stay alive under the endless beatings at the hands of "the master" - the most degenerate life form of all.
Northup's story brims with vividly drawn 19th-century characters - fellow slaves, cruel overseers and plantation owners, and the occasional white ally.
American racism came in endless variations in this era when the trading of human beings was also the economic foundation of half the nation.
Likely Oscar contender Ejiofor leads a screenful of superb performances by Lupita Nyong'o, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Alfred Woodard and Pitt.
Based on the sheer volume of his recent work, Pitt, whose name also comes first in the producers' credits, deserves another Oscar for being the most interesting, fearless and successful filmmaker of the year.
His character in this film, a Henry David Thoreau-like thinker who plays a key role in eventually gaining Northup's freedom, is minor but right-minded and hugely significant, like Pitt himself in today's Hollywood.
"12 Years a Slave" is profoundly instructive about the inequalities and injustices interwoven into the social fabric of America's greatest triumph: democracy.
It's also an unfortunate reminder that the cruelty and tyranny that once championed slavery are still part of modern life, no matter what victims - bullied children in schools, gay couples, anyone who's weak or "different" - they're so arrogantly and righteously directed against.
"12 Years a Slave's" sobering history lesson was followed by one equally devastating that some of us can still remember firsthand - the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.
A veritable media avalanche is under way, commemorating not only the death but the life of this figure who changed everything. Last Sunday's "60 Minutes" led the way, doing a profile of photographer Henry Grossman, who managed to be in the right place at the right time to capture some of the most enduring images of JFK, and then of the Beatles' arrival in the U.S. a few months later.
I, too, managed to be in the right place at the right time to see Kennedy twice in his lifetime, and then be part of the revolution and renaissance now lumped together under the label of "The '60s." The Beatles provided the soundtrack.
A generation of us first heard reports of JFK's shooting on P.A. systems in high school classrooms, then watched events from Dallas, then the funeral from Washington on black-and-white TV screens. The Beatles arrived on "The Ed Sullivan Show" the following February. The '60s introduced a new way of life, lived through media images on screens.
Life today is lived in ways unimaginable then on an endless array of screens. But we're still trying to process the same basic lessons about what being human means.
Funny thing about history - the farther you come, the farther you still have to go.
* Email rick chatenever at email@example.com