Director Steve McQueen has “taken liberties” with Solomon Northup’s narrative which may confuse the viewer. The film is very good at provoking emotions. The cast is marvelous; the acting, excellent. But some of the scenes make no sense. Invariably, these are fictional constructions, with no basis in fact.
The worst of these is the “Hollywood style” death of a male slave in the hold of a ship. We have just seen him muzzled, now he is walking around without shackles. Northup states that the men were shackled in the hold, and male slaves were generally separated from female slaves, not only on ships, but in coffles for overland transport.
McQueen is clearly fascinated with lynching, so much so, that he repeatedly conflates post-Reconstruction and slavery. Northup stood in the sun for hours after Tibeats tried to hang him, firmly tied, but not hanging by the neck. Indeed, it is very doubtful he would have survived several hours in that condition. The overseer, Chapin, would not have allowed it, simply from a commercial point of view.
The narrative states Mrs. Epps sometimes threw chunks of wood or broken bottles at Patsey in the yard, but did not knock her unconscious, or scratch her face, as shown in the film.
The initial conversation between Northup and Bass occurred while they were accidentally left alone. Their subsequent meetings occurred in the middle of the night, far from any witnesses. Epps would not have left Northup alone with Bass, since he already suspected Northup of trying to talk to white men to send a letter.
Other than the direct attacks on Patsey by Mrs. Epps, the brutality was not exaggerated. My brother, Greg, read the narrative before viewing the film, and he agrees with this assessment. It is difficult for anyone to realize, even in a small way, just how bad it was.
The film is a good introduction to the horrors of slavery. If you have any questions, consult the narrative.