We see a group of slaves on a plantation. A white man instructs the slaves to cut cane from the fields, urging them to be quick about it. The men get to work, singing as they work. We then see one of the slaves, Solomon Northup, eating his dinner of bacon, biscuits, and blackberries on a porch. As he stares at the blackberry juice, he gets an idea to turn it into ink. Later, he whittles a pen, sits at a desk, and begins to write, but it does not work.
When Solomon lays down to sleep, he rolls over to see a woman staring at him. She grabs his hand and touches her breast with it, before guiding it down between her legs. After she has an orgasm, she begins to cry. Solomon lays in bed, looking disturbed and remembering his life before slavery, flashing to a memory of holding his wife in bed in their home in Saratoga, New York in 1841.
We see Solomon tightening the strings on his violin, before playing at a predominately white party. They applaud for him after finishing dancing. We then see him tucking his children into bed and going to bed with his wife, who is preparing to leave him and go on a trip for three weeks and two days to work as a cook.
After seeing them off the following morning, Solomon runs into an acquaintance in the park, who introduces him to two men named Brown and Hamilton who are running a circus in Washington D.C. They invite him to be in the show for a good sum of money, and return him to Saratoga in two weeks. Solomon agrees and accompanies them to Washington, where he goes to a lavish dinner with the men and thanks them for their generosity.
When Solomon wakes up next, his clothes are gone and he is in chains. Brown and Hamilton have drugged him and imprisoned him against his will. He pulls on the chains, desperate to break free, when a man comes in and greets him. Solomon protests that he is a free man and is being wrongfully imprisoned, but the man doesn’t believe him, saying that he’s from Georgia and he’s a runaway slave and flogging him violently.
A man brings Solomon food and a new shirt in his cell, before taking away his old clothes, which were given to Solomon by his wife. We see Solomon washing outside with some other slaves, and when a young boy begins crying for his mother, Solomon tells him to be quiet. Later, he tells the other slaves that Brown and Hamilton must be making inquiries into his whereabouts. “They were not kidnappers, they were artists. Fellow performers,” Solomon says, but Clemens, one of the slaves, insists that they will be taken south and sold at market.
Soon enough, the men bring in a woman, Eliza, and her daughter. Eliza is the slave boy’s mother, and she hugs him, relieved to be reunited. That evening, two white guards gather up the slaves and bring them onto a riverboat. That night, Clemens tells Solomon, “If you want to survive, do and say as little as possible. Tell no one who you really are and tell no one you can read and write.”
Another slave, Robert, who has had something placed over his mouth for a while, tells Clemens and Solomon that they should revolt. They discuss their chances of success, eventually deciding that because most of the other slaves on the boat were born slaves and are not up for a fight, it is best to stay calm and not fight. “Survival’s not about certain death, it’s about keeping your head down,” Clemens says.
Solomon is saddened by the fact that he must keep his identity a secret, and says, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” Later, we see a white man come down into the cabin and approach a sleeping Eliza, shaking her awake. He beckons her into another part of the cabin to rape her, when Robert tries to stop him. The man stabs Robert.
The next morning, Solomon and Clemens throw Robert’s body overboard. “Better than us,” says Clemens.
The film begins with Solomon Northup alone on a plantation, but soon flashes back to his life before slavery. By using this nonlinear timeline, director Steve McQueen shows the viewer that Solomon’s life has changed drastically for the worse. This sequence of events aligns the viewer with Solomon, giving us a particular window into his experience, first as an esteemed violist, and then in complete subjugation under slavery. The narrative structure makes the story all the more tragic, in that it shows so clearly what Solomon has lost.
The fact that we see Solomon’s fate as a slave gives a particularly devastating and excruciating color to the flashback scenes. In these, a dramatic irony is operating in that we the viewer know that Solomon is destined to be torn away from his family, while he has no idea. When he agrees to travel to Washington with the amicable Brown and Hamilton, the viewer has a strong suspicion that they are not who they purport to be, but Solomon accepts their “generosity” with an earnest trust. No sooner has he thanked them for the opportunities they are offering him than Brown and Hamilton drug and imprison him, preparing to sell him into slavery.
Solomon’s life quickly changes from one characterized by decency and trust to one of tragedy and violence. No sooner has he been chained up than a particularly sadistic guard is flogging him and screaming at him that he is a slave. Not only is he deceived and betrayed by men that he trusted, but he is completely cut off from the life he has built and stripped of his entire identity. The film tells the story of a man who was doing everything he could to have a comfortable and happy life, who then has everything torn away in the blink of an eye.
The indignity that Solomon faces not only has to do with the fact that he is being stripped of the trappings of his former life, but with the fact that he must comply with all impositions placed on him and keep his education and identity a secret in order to survive. When they are on the riverboat, Clemens tells Solomon that he must keep the fact that he can read and write, as well as his former identity, a complete secret while he is imprisoned. Not only is Solomon cut off from his real life, but he is forbidden from even acknowledging that it existed.
Solomon is aggrieved at hearing that he must stay silent about his identity. Having lost everything he held dear, Solomon cannot believe that he must suddenly only think about imperatives for survival, and not about how to have a happy and enriching life. “I want to live, not survive,” he says to Clemens, insistent that life is not simply about getting by. However, even as he says this, the audience can tell that Solomon knows he has no choice but to submit to the horrors of slavery and keep his head down.