Slavery is a dark chapter in US history. And surprisingly few Americans seem to know the full horror of what the country’s slave population had to endure. Over the years Hollywood has been reluctant when it comes to filling in the details. But is this down to audience disinterest – or is there a deeper issue? “There still are a lot of Americans in the marketplace who don’t really want to see the reality of slavery − and Hollywood being a business may be wary about showing too much of that,” says Screen International film critic David D’Arcy.

But now a forthcoming picture, the highly-praised 12 Years a Slave from British filmmaker Steve McQueen, is about to bring Americans what many view as the most realistic and bold portrayal of slavery ever seen on the big screen. It opens next week in US cinemas and it’s a film that could both educate and inspire − as well as alienate.

The film is based on the published memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs in New York who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841. Northup was stripped of his identity, given a new name and sent to toil on Louisiana’s plantations. The film shows his mistreatment − and that of his fellow slaves – in all its full horror. Steve McQueen maintains he had a straightforward goal: “I just wanted to make a film about slavery because it was something which hadn’t been actually looked at before in depth − and it was just a gaping hole in film history and I thought I want to investigate. I want to look.”