Purlie is set at the beginning of the civil rights movement when segregation was still practiced in the American South. Reverend Purlie Victorious Johnson (Robert Guillaume) experiences conditions that are akin to slavery throughout his travels to various areas, including his own hometown in Georgia.
He has returned to the plantation of Ol’ Cap’n Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee (Brandon Maggart) where he and his family worked as sharecroppers. Purlie has learned a long-lost relative has inherited monies and Cap’n Cotchipee is holding the funds. Purlie plans to retrieve the resources, in hopes of liberating those who are practically slaving away on the land tract as well as save the community church, Big Bethel.
However, he has no way to locate this cousin. Enlisting the cooperation of several on the plantation, including Lutiebell Gussie Mae Jenkins (Melba Moore), who has a crush on Purlie; and Charlie Cotchipee (Don Scardino), the liberal-hearted son of Ol’ Cap’n, Purlie devises a scheme in order to attain his goals.