As the close of the Civil War nears, three disparate black Union soldiers become trapped behind Confederate lines and are forced to hide out on a cotton plantation, trying to blend in and not be noticed by the addled owner of the plantation and his harsh black overseer. But when the Colonel's eldest son declares he's taking the slaves to Brazil -- where slavery is still legal - our heroes decide they have to escape... and plan to take all the plantation slaves with them.
It’s late 1864, near the end of the Civil War. Confederates attack a Union camp and three black privates become separated from their unit: ULYSSES JACKSON, a freeborn, educated black Union Soldier with a superiority complex; TICK, an escaped slave who distrusts everyone and is awed by the fact that he’s getting paid to shoot while folks; and PINE KNOT, a huge, sweet man, content to let others make the decisions. Pursued south, they swim a river and spend that night in an empty shack, where they liberate dry clothes, and Pine Knot - too big for any of the pants - is forced to wear a dress.
As they continue south, Tick talks them past a roadblock by pretending they’re recently sold slaves, and they’re escorted to the nearest plantation, Magnolia. The owner, the addle-brained COLONEL, sends them along to the cruel black overseer QUENTIN, and they’re set to work picking cotton. All the slaves know Pine Knot is a man in a dress, but the whites have no idea. They meet SALLY, the beautiful and fiery house slave who Quentin wants. Ulysses also becomes smitten with her, but she loves the Colonel’s son JAMES.
Ulysses decides that life on a plantation is a lot like army life, and that maybe they should wait out the war here. He’s forced to confront reality when Confederate soldiers take Tick and a boy away with them. Ulysses and Pine Knot chase after, but Tick refuses to be rescued. He tells them to take the boy - who won’t be missed - but he will be. He’s escaped once and he can do it again
Ulysses and Pine Knot return to Magnolia, where they learn that the Colonel’s other son ETHAN has come home from the war, and he’s got plans to take the slaves to Brazil, where slavery is still legal. Worried, James asks his father to free Sally, and decides to flee with her before Ethan gets his hands on her.
Knowing Ethan is going to sell one of the families to raise funds, Ulysses and Pine Knot help them escape. Ulysses creates a diversion, and Pine Knot realizes he’s got to take charge. He sees the family to safety. Ulysses returns to the plantation, determined to help all the slaves escape. They take to the woods, but Ethan and Quentin round them up at gunpoint and lock them in the barn. With Union troops nearing, Ethan sets the cotton fields ablaze, and the fire spreads to the barn. Quentin is horrified when Ethan decides to let it burn, but Ulysses breaks everyone out just as the Yankees attack. Tick - who managed to escape once again - and Pine Knot lead the charge.
Quentin escapes just as James is shot dead by his brother. Ulysses attacks Ethan, stopping just short of killing him when he realizes the difference between murder and fighting for what’s right. The Colonel and Sally grieve for James as Magnolia burns.
Back in 1914, Old Ulysses tells his grandchildren he came back after the war, married Sally and rebuilt Magnolia. He wanders out into the fields and contemplates a pair of headstones. An elderly Tick and Pine Knot speak up from off to the side. They’re not dead yet, and they really wish he would get rid of the headstones until they are.
12 Years a Slave
Little Big Man