In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.
Solomon Northup: I don't want to survive. I want to live.
Solomon Northup: [Upon meeting his family again after 12 years] I apologize for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years.
Bass: The law says you have the right to hold a nigger, but begging the law's pardon... it lies. Is everything right because the law allows it? Suppose they'd pass a law taking away your liberty and making you a slave? Edwin Epps: Ha! Bass: Suppose! Edwin Epps: That ain't a supposable case. Bass: Because the law states that your liberties are undeniable? Because society deems it so? Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, it is a plain fact that what is true and right is true and right for all. White and black alike.
Solomon Northup: I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune!
Patsey: I went to Massa Shaw's plantation! Edwin Epps: Ya admit it. Patsey: Freely. And you know why? [she produces a piece of soap from the pocket of her dress] Patsey: I got this from Mistress Shaw. Mistress Epps won't even grant me no soap ta clean with. Stink so much I make myself gag. Five hundred pounds 'a cotton day in, day out. More than any man here. And 'fo that I will be clean; that all I ax. Dis here what I went to Shaw's 'fo. Edwin Epps: You lie... Patsey: The Lord knows that's all. Edwin Epps: You lie! Patsey: And you blind wit yer own covetousness. I don't lie, Massa. If you kill me, I'll stick ta that. Edwin Epps: Oh, I'll fetch you down. I'll learn you to go to Shaw's. I'll take the starch outta ya. Treach, go get some line.
Robert: I say we fight. Solomon Northup: The crew is fairly small. If it were well planned, I believe they could be strong armed. Clemens: Three can't stand against a whole crew. The rest here are niggers, born and bred slaves. Niggers ain't got the stomach for a fight, not a damn one. Robert: All I know, we get where we travelling we'll wish we'd died trying. Clemens: Survival is not about certain death, it is about keeping your head down. Solomon Northup: Days ago I was with my family, in my home. Now you tell me all is lost. "Tell no one who I really am" if I want to survive. I don't want to survive, I want to live.
Edwin Epps: [Having awakened Solomon in the middle of the night, Epps coaxes him outside, puts his arm around him as if consoling a friend, and guides him into the woods] Well, boy. I understand I've got a larned nigger that writes letters and tries to get white fellows to mail 'em. Well, Armsby tol' me today the devil was among my niggers. That I had one that needed close watchin' or he would run away. When I axed him why, he said you come over to him and waked him up in the middle of the night and wanted him to carry a letter to Marksville. What have yah got to say to that? Solomon Northup: There is no truth in it. Edwin Epps: You say. Solomon Northup: How could I write a letter without ink or paper? There is nobody I want to write to 'cause I hain't got no friends living as I know of. That Armsby is a lying drunken fellow. You know this, just as you know that I am constant in truth. Now, master, I can see what that Armsby is after, plain enough. Didn't he want you to hire him for an overseer? That's it. He wants to make you believe we're all going to run away and then he thinks you'll hire an overseer to watch us. He believes you are soft soap. He's given to such talk. I believe he's just made this story out of whole cloth, 'cause he wants to get a situation. It's all a lie, master, you may depend on't. It's all a lie. Edwin Epps: [reveals a pocket knife he'd had pressed against Solomon's gut the entire time] I'll be damned... Were he not free and white, Platt. Were he not free and white.
Solomon Northup: [Epps has just whipped Patsey within an inch of her life] Thou devil! Sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice thou shalt answer for this sin! Edwin Epps: No sin! There is no sin! A man does how he pleases with his property. At the moment, Platt, I am of great pleasure. You be goddamn careful I don't come to wantin' to lightenin' my mood no further.
Ford: I believe Tibeats is skulkin' about the premises somewhere. He wants you dead, and he will attempt to have you so. It's no longer safe for you here. And I don't believe you will remain passive if Tibeats attacks. I have transferred my debt to Edwin Epps. He will take charge of you. Solomon Northup: Master Ford, you must know; I am not a slave. Ford: I cannot hear that. Solomon Northup: Before I came to you I was a free man. Ford: I am trying to save your life! And... I have a debt to be mindful of. That, now, is to Edwin Epps. He is a hard man. Prides himself on being a "nigger breaker." But truthfully I could find no others who would have you. You've made a reputation of yourself. Whatever your circumstances, you are an exceptional nigger, Platt. I fear no good will come of it.
Mistress Epps: You will remove that black bitch from this property, or I'll take myself back to Cheneyville. Edwin Epps: Back to the hogs's trough where I found you? Do not set yourself against Patsy, my dear. Cos I will rid myself of you well before I do away with her.
Solomon Northup: I did as instructed. If there's something wrong, it's wrong with the instructions! Tibeats: You black bastard. You... goddamn... black bastard. Strip your clothes. [shoving Solomon] Tibeats: Strip. Solomon Northup: I will not.
Clemens: If you want to survive, do and say as little as possible. Tell no one who you really are and tell no one that you can read and write. Unless you want to be a dead nigger.
Mistress Ford: [to Eliza] Something to eat and some rest; your children will soon enough be forgotten.
Ford: [Ford is attempting to buy Eliza, who begs to allow her daughter to come too. Her son having just been sold] How much for the little girl? You have no need for her. One so young will bring you no profit. Freeman: I will not sell the girl. There's heaps 'n piles of money to be made off her. She is a beauty. One of the regular bloods. None of your thick-lipped, bullet headed, cotton picking niggers. Ford: Her child, man. For God's sake, are you not sentimental in the least? Freeman: My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin. Do you want the lot, Mr. Ford, or do you pass on them all? Ford: I will take the ones Platt and Eliza.
Mistress Shaw: In his own time, the Good Lord will manage them all. The curse of the pharoahs was a poor example of what waits for the plantation class.
Burch: Yah a slave. Yah a Georgia slave! [savagely beats Solomon until his paddle breaks. He switches to a whip and continues] Burch: Are yah a slave? Solomon Northup: No.
Edwin Epps: "And that servant which knew his Lord's will... which knew his Lord's will and prepared not himself... prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes..." D'ye hear that? "Stripes." That nigger that don't take care, that don't obey his lord - that's his master - d'ye see? - that 'ere nigger shall be beaten with many stripes. Now, "many" signifies a great many. Forty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty lashes... That's Scripter!
Tibeats: [singing] Nigger run, nigger flew/Nigger tore his shirt in two/Run, run, the pattyroller git you/Run nigger run, well ya better get away. That's right, like you mean it. Nigger run, run so fast/Stove his head in a hornet's nest/Run, run, the pattyroller git you/Run nigger, run, well ya bette git away/Run, nigger, run, the pattyroller git you/Run nigger run, well ya better git away/Some folks say a nigger don't steal/well I caught three in my cornfield/One had a bushel and one had a peck/and one had a rope being hung around his neck/Run nigger run/ the pattyroller git you/Run nigger run, well ya better get away/Hey, Mr. Pattyroller, don't catch me/Catch that nigger behind that tree!/Run nigger run, the pattyroller get you/Run nigger run, well ya better get away.
Burch: Well, my boy, how yah feel now? Solomon Northup: I am Solomon Northup. I am a free man; a resident of Saratoga, New York. The residence also of my wife and children who are equally free. I have papers. You have no right whatsoever to detain me... Burch: Yah not any... Solomon Northup: And I promise you - I promise - upon my liberation I will have satisfaction for this wrong. Burch: Resolve this. Produce your papers. [Solomon searches and finds no papers] Burch: Yah no free man. And yah ain't from Saratoga. Yah from Georgia. Yah ain't a free man. Yah nuthin' but a Georgia runaway. Yah a runaway nigger from Georgia.
Solomon Northup: We need a sympathetic ear. If we have an opportunity to explain our situation... Clemens: Who in your estimation is that sympathetic ear? Solomon Northup: The two men I journeyed with. I'm certain they're making inquires at this very moment. Clemens: I would be just as certain they are counting the money paid for delivering you to this place. Solomon Northup: They were not kidnappers. They were artists. Fellow performers. Clemens: You know that? You know for certain who they were? [Solomon cannot answer] Clemens: How I reckon the situation: whatever past we had... well, that's done now. The reality to come is us being transported southward. New Orleans if I were to venture. After we arrive, we'll be put to market. Beyond that... Well, once in a slave state I suppose there's only one outcome.
Edwin Epps: [about Patsey] Damned Queen. Born and bred to the field. A nigger among niggers, and God give 'er to me. A lesson in the rewards of righteous livin'. All be observant ta that. All!
Freeman: Oren. John. Lethe. Eliza. Randall. Emily. Platt... Platt! [Solomon is the only one still seated. He does not respond; Freeman approaches him] Freeman: You fit the description given. Why didn't you answer when called? Solomon Northup: My name is not Platt. My name is... Freeman: [slaps Solomon hard across the face] Your name is Platt.
Edwin Epps: A plague! It's damn Biblical. Two season God done sent a plague to smite me. I am near ruination. Why, Treach? What I done that God hate me so? Do I not preach His word? Treach: The whole Bayou sufferin'. Edwin Epps: I don't care nothin' fer the damn Bayou. I'm sufferin'. [looks at the slaves] Edwin Epps: It's that Godless lot. They brought this on me. I bring 'em God's word, and heathens they are, they brung me God's scorn.
Mistress Epps: Sometimes, you have to beat it from them. [she scratches Patsey's face; Patsey screams] Mistress Epps: BEAT IT FROM THEM!
Freeman: You see how fit the boy is. Like ripe fruit. He will grow into a fine beast. [makes Randall run and jump in place] Freeman: Six hundred, and that's fair and final.
Edwin Epps: [bursting into the slaves' quarters in the middle of the night] Get up! Get up, we dance tonight! We will not waste the evenin' with yer laziness. Get up.
Chapin: [Tibeats and a gang are trying to lynch Solomon] Gentlemen... Whoever moves that nigger another foot from where he stands is a dead man. I am overseer of this plantation seven years, and in the absence of William Ford, my duty is to protect his interests. Ford holds a mortgage on Platt of four hundred dollars. If you hang him, he loses his debt. Until that is canceled you have no claim to his life. [to Ramsay and Cook] Chapin: As for you two, if you have any regard for your own safety... I say, begone!
Brown: Circus too constricting a word to describe the talented and merry band with which we travel. It is a spectacle unlike most have ever witnessed. Creatures from the darkest Africa as yet unseen by civilized man. Acrobats from the Orient able to contort themselves in the most confounding manners. Hamilton: And I myself in aide of Mr. Brown; an internationally renowned practitioner in the art of prestidigitation.
Radburn: [brings food in to Solomon; a shriveled piece of meat and some water. Just barely enough to sustain Solomon. Radburn also has a shirt] That old thing of yours is just rags and tatters. Need something proper to wear. Go'won. Put it on. [Solomon reluctantly does so] Radburn: There. Tha's fine. Tha's fine. Got no gratitude? Solomon Northup: ...Thank you. Radburn: Yah keep bein' proper, yah'll see how things work out. [takes Solomon's old shirt] Solomon Northup: No! It was from my wife. Radburn: Rags and tatters. Rags and tatters.
Hamilton: I'm afraid that Brown and I haven't brought you much luck. But rough waters bring smooth sailing. Eventually they do. Solomon Northup: So... so sorry... Hamilton: Shhh. We won't hear it. We won't. Brown: Let him sleep. Hamilton: Hmm. A good night's sleep. And tomorrow... tomorrow you will feel as well and refreshed as though the earth were new again. Brown: Hamilton! Nothing more we can do for him. Hamilton: Such is the pity.
Solomon Northup: [Solomon awakens Armsby in the middle of the night. He offers him a handful of coins] The proceeds of my fiddling performances. A few picayunes, but all I have in the world. I promise them to you if you will do me the favor I require. But I beg you not to expose me if you cannot grant the request. Armsby: What do you ask? Solomon Northup: First, your word, sir. Armsby: On my honor. Solomon Northup: It is a simple enough request. I ask only that you deposit a letter in the Marksville post office. And that you keep the action an inviolable secret forever. The details of the letter are of no consequence. Even at that, there would be an imposition of much pain and suffering were it known I was the author. A patron is what I require, sir. Armsby: Where is the letter now? Solomon Northup: It is not yet written. I will have it in a day. Two at most, my skill with composition as poor as it is. Armsby: I will do it. And will accept whatever payment is offered.
Tibeats: [after being punched out by Solomon over an argument] You will not live to see another day!
Ford: What is the price for the ones Platt and Eliza? Freeman: A thousand for Platt; he is a nigger of talent. Seven hundred for Eliza. My fairest price. Ford: You will accept a note? Freeman: Always from you, Mr. Ford.
Radburn: Jus takin' a li'l trip, tha's all. Don't want to frighten the chil'ren none over a li'l boat ride, do yah?
Tibeats: My name is John Tibeats, William Ford's chief carpenter. You will refer to me as Master. Mister Chapin is the overseer on this plantation. He is responsible for all of Ford's property. You too will refer to him as Master. This plantation covers many hundreds of acres, and you will traverse the Texas road between the forest site and the sawmill in double time. Any clever nigger on that path that gets a little light-footed, I will remind him that on one side men and bloodhounds patrol the border and on the other the bayou provides a hard living, with alligators and little to eat or drink that won't kill you. No slave has escaped here with his life. You're here to work niggers, so let's commence.
[first lines] Overseer: Alright now, y'all fresh niggers. Y'all gonna be in the cuttin' gang.
Freeman: Put the least thought in your head. C'mon, now. Think of somethin'.
Patroller: [in a vain attempt to escape, Solomon runs into some patrollers who are fixing to hang a trio of slaves] Boy, where are you going? Solomon Northup: To the store, Sir, to Bartholomew's. I was sent there by Mistress Epps. Patroller: [the patroller reaches out for Solomon's free pass around his neck, yanking him forward. He looks at it] Get there and get there quick. [Patroller kicks Solomon hard, sending him on his way]
Tibeats: I thought I told yah ta commence ta puttin' on clapboards this morn'.