This adaptation of Richard Wright's classic novel takes place in 1940s Chicago. Bigger Thomas (Victor Love) lives in poverty with his mother, Mrs. Thomas (Oprah Winfrey), and younger siblings. He finds a job working as a chauffeur for the Daltons, a wealthy white family, to help his family survive. Mr. Dalton (John McMartin) asks Bigger to transport his daughter, Mary (Elizabeth McGovern), to college, but once inside the vehicle Mary instructs his to pick up her boyfriend, Jan (Matt Dillon). Mary and Jan are politically left-wing and try to treat Bigger as an equal rather than a servant. They ask Bigger to take them into a black nightclub and both become inebriated by the end of the night.
Once back at the Dalton home, Bigger needs to get Mary back to her bedroom without her parents knowing how drunk she is. Bigger manages to carry her upstairs, but the blind Mrs. Dalton (Carroll Baker) enters the room. Bigger tries to keep Mary quiet by putting a pillow over her face but accidently suffocates her. Bigger decides his only way out of the predicament is to dispose of the body, so he burns the corpse in the basement furnace.
The next morning, Bigger tells the Daltons that Jan brought Mary back to the house, and they believe that the young couple has run off together. They hire a detective to trace them, who quickly locates Jan who tells a very different story. Bigger then tries to make the detective and the Daltons believe a kidnapping has occurred by leaving a ransom note under their door. The police and reporters arrive on the scene, and Bigger is asked to start a new fire in the furnace. In his nervousness, Bigger stokes the embers and smoke fills the room. When another man takes over the job, Mary's remains are found and Bigger runs away.
Eventually, police catch up with Bigger and put him in jail. Surprisingly, Jan visits him and offers Bigger help in the form of an attorney and explains Bigger has taught him about the reality of black and white relations.