Perhaps the best illustration of what I’m talking about is an important turn of events in 12 Years a Slave, which occurs near the end of the first act/beginning of the second act. Solomon defends himself from a slave handler named Tibeats (Paul Dano) – who is embarrassed after Solomon has proven himself to be the smarter man – by fighting back and getting the best of his assailant. Tibeats retaliates by gathering his thugs and attempting to hang Solomon, but is stopped at the last moment. However, Solmon is left half-hanging (standing on his tip-toes) as a punishment, until his Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) rushes home and cuts him free. Thereafter, Ford is forced to sell Solomon, in order to protect him from Tibeats (who still wants his revenge).
In real life, these events played out differently. Ford had sold Solomon to Tibeats when, one day, the latter – being described in Solomon’s memoir as “even more morose and disagreeable than usual” – unwisely tried to beat his servant in the way that the film portrays. However, the reason Tibeats was stopped from hanging Solomon was because Ford still held a mortgage on him and, therefore, Tibeats had no right to kill Solomon until Ford’s debt was settled (let that sink in for a moment).
Solomon was thereafter left in place tied up and unable to move while exposed to terrible heat from the sun (not half-choking, as in the movie), until Ford arrived and set him loose. Solomon even continued to work for Tibeats in the days that followed; though, the latter tended to stay quiet and keep his distance from then on (having learned his lesson).
Mind you, in his memoir Solomon does not skimp on the harsh details where it concerns how exhausting and punishing his experience working for Tibeats was. The thing is, this chapter in 12 Years a Slave (the book) is a fascinating, yet also simple illustration of how the institution of slavery worked – and just what a deplorable, self-perpetuating machine it was. Even more so, it drives home the reality that slavery – back in the mid-19th century – was seen as being a normal part of everyday life, even by people like Mr. Ford (whom, in his memoir, Solomon still admires as a good man and Christian).
In the film, however, the highlight of this event is the 1-2 minutes of sickening footage that shows Solomon half-hanging to death. Does it show the brutality of slavery? Absolutely. Does it make a profound statement that helps us in the present to really understand how and why this was allowed to happen (and just how much your average non-slave American was culpable in letting it happen)? Well…