Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black New Yorker who was kidnapped and trafficked into Southern slavery in the 1840s, is the most unflinching depiction of what historians euphemistically referred to as America’s “peculiar institution.”

Peculiar institution? The Heritage Foundation is a peculiar institution! The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a peculiar institution! Slavery was bondage, rape, and murder. For centuries. It was America’s original sin, and 12 Years‘ gripping tale washes away 100 years of cinematic gloss and shows it for what it really was. It’s a direct approach that McQueen feels strongly about, one that stretches beyond the events onscreen.

At a recent Los Angeles screening of the film that included a Q&A, music-artist Common asked McQueen what his film’s message was for today’s inner-city youth, some of whom might be ashamed of their heritage. “What I would like this film to do is almost to embrace that past, to make it yours, to own it, to tame it, to master it,” said McQueen, a Brit whose ancestors were slaves. “We have to understand it to go forward.”

Click below for an exclusive video of their conversation:

12 Years a Slave
  • Movie
  • 134 minutes