When they arrive at their destination, Clemens' master is waiting for him and demands that he return to the plantation. Clemens runs to his master, pretending to be much more grateful and less intelligent than he has shown himself to be to Solomon, leaving Solomon behind. We see a flashback of Solomon going into a store with his family in Saratoga, where Solomon is buying a carryall for his wife's travels. While they are shopping, a black man comes into the store, followed by his master, a white man, who scolds him for wandering off.
Back in the present, a slaver named Freeman calls the remaining slaves' names and slaps Solomon when he does not immediately answer to his new slave name, "Platt." At Freeman's offices, Freeman tries to sell his slaves to some white buyers. When a man named Ford is interested in Solomon (for $1000) and Eliza (for $700), Eliza begs Freeman to sell her children with her, but he swiftly sells her son (for $600) to a different buyer. Ford tries to buy Eliza's daughter, but Freeman insists that she is more valuable, because she is half-white, and that he cannot sell her with her mother. Eliza is separated from both her children. When she leaves the room, screaming, Solomon begins to play the violin.
Ford brings Eliza and Solomon to his home, where his wife looks at the grieving Eliza. "Something to eat and some rest. Your children will soon be forgotten," she says, going into the house.
We see slave men preparing to work, and a white slave-handler and carpenter named John Tibeats introduces himself and Mr. Chapin, an overseer on the plantation. He tells the slave that they must refer to both of them as "master" and invites them all to clap their hands while he sings a racist song about killing black men. The slaves cut down trees for their work that day. We see Ford delivering a Christian sermon to his slaves.
One day, Solomon and the other slave men run into a group of Native Americans, with whom they spend a brief moment of peace. Solomon watches one of the men play a stringed instrument and seems to think of his violin.
Solomon tells Tibeats and Ford about an idea of how to transport lumber more quickly on the river. "Are you an engineer or a nigger?" Tibeats asks, patronizingly. Ford, on the other hand, wants to hear him out, and is impressed as Solomon tells them he once hired his own group to transport items from Lake Champlain to Troy, New York. He tells Solomon to collect a team and put his plan into action.
Solomon puts his plan into motion and succeeds, much to Tibeats' chagrin. Ford is impressed and rewards him with a violin. "I hope it brings us both much joy over the years," Ford says, as Solomon goes back to the slave quarters. There, Eliza is sobbing, and Solomon scolds her, saying, "You let yourself be overcome by sorrow, you'll drown in it." She asks him whether he mourns his children, and he says that he misses them a great deal.
"Master Ford is a decent man," Solomon protests, but Eliza insists, "He is a slaver." Solomon insists that he does what he needs to do to survive, but Eliza tells him, "You are no better than prized livestock." The scene shifts to Ford delivering a sermon. While Eliza sobs, Mrs. Ford whispers, "I cannot have that kind of depression about."
Later, Tibeats approaches Solomon and insults him. "You are a dog," Tibeats says, barking at him and telling him to work harder on the house he is erecting. Suddenly, Solomon sees Eliza being dragged off. We see a flashback of Eliza telling a story of her old life on a plantation where she was treated well and even bore a daughter with her master. When that master got older and lost power in the household, she says, the master's resentful daughter brought her and her children to the city under the pretense that they were going to be freed.
Back in the present, Solomon works on the clapboards on the house, when he is once again visited by Tibeats. When Solomon speaks back to Tibeats, Tibeats tells him to strip, but Solomon refuses. The two men fight, with Solomon eventually beating Tibeats. Chapin approaches and tells Solomon that if he runs, he cannot protect him, implying that he will go to Ford to sort out the conflict.
Tibeats hangs Solomon from a tree, but Chapin approaches and warns him that he has no claim to Solomon's life, as Ford is his owner.
Solomon's fate seems only to get bleaker and bleaker as he descends deeper and deeper into the world of slavery. After getting cut off from his only friend, Clemens, when the latter returns to his master, Solomon is left alone in the care of a particularly ruthless slaver named Freeman, who forces Solomon to take a new name. Solomon is brought back to Freeman's office where he is sold and witnesses the tragic separation of Eliza from her children. The film plunges the viewer into the inhumanity and horrors of slavery.
One of the more horrific elements of the narrative is the fact that while some white characters are more sympathetic towards the plight of the slaves, they do nothing to stop the system itself. Presented alongside a character like the bigoted and evil Freeman, Mr. Ford and his wife seem to have some goodness in them, in that they try to pity the people they have enslaved. When Mrs. Ford sees Eliza crying, she appears to feel sorry for the woman's loss of her children, but soon follows up her sentiment of sympathy with the statement, "Your children will soon be forgotten." In this, we see that Mrs. Ford's cruelty is as damaging and unconscious as the ruthless Freeman, if more sympathetically packaged. While there seems to be a spectrum of cruelty, all of the white characters in the film are presented as complicit in upholding the institution of slavery.
McQueen juxtaposes the horrors of the human slave trade with the beauty of the natural world throughout the film. On the boat, he films the water of the river rushing through the machinery propelling the boat forward. On the plantation, he shoots beautifully lit shots of the majestic and mysterious trees on the property. In these images, McQueen juxtaposes images of the natural world with images of human labor. We see the mechanics of the boat moving towards its destination, all part of an industry dedicated to the subjugation of slaves. Immediately after showing the trees on the Ford property, McQueen shows a line of slave men preparing to work. While the message of these images is implicit, they seem to suggest that slavery and colonialism both concern the subjugation of nature and human life; McQueen reminds us that the enjoyment of the natural world within American colonial structures comes at a high human price.
Solomon finds himself at odds with some of the other slaves, when it comes to his desire to win favor with his master. After convincing Ford to let him pursue an engineering project that impresses his master, Solomon scolds Eliza, his fellow slave, for mourning the loss of her children. In this moment, she reminds him that, while Ford may be showing kindness to him, he is a slaver, and he thinks of Solomon as little more than "prized livestock." Solomon, a Northerner who is used to doing what he can to climb the ladder of white society, finds himself brought back down to earth in this moment, reminded that even if the white people on the plantation seem to believe in him, they view him with a racist condescension.
The tragedy is that neither Solomon nor Eliza's tactics are effective in resisting the indignity and tragedy of slavery. By openly expressing her grief at having lost her children, Eliza makes herself vulnerable to the whims of her master. Similarly, by keeping his mouth shut and simply trying to excel, Solomon becomes a target for Tibeats, who views Solomon as a threat to his own dignity and intellect. Solomon and Eliza's clash is all the more tragic because neither of them is able to maintain any sense of dignity under slavery, because slavery does not view them as being dignified human beings.