Joe Braxton (Richard Pryor) is a convict who violates his parole after a failed attempt to lift a bunch of televisions from a store in Philadelphia. After a dramatic attempt at reverse psychology with the judge (Bill Quinn), he is given a second chance at parole, and his parole-officer, Donald (Robert Christian), has him do something for him.
Donald is also involved with school teacher Vivian Perry (Cicely Tyson), whose school was just closed down by the city due to budget cuts. While most of the children have been relocated, eight special needs students have yet to be relocated. Vivian decides to take them to her aunt’s farm in rural Washington. Donald is against it, and at first gets Joe to tell her the old bus she planned on using would not work. However, that blows up in his face, but Donald then decides to have Joe go ahead and drive the bus to Washington.
As Joe, Vivian, and the kids get rolling, we learn a little more about some of the kids:
Harold (Jimmy Hughes) is blind, but so badly wants to drive a vehicle, and eventually does.
Anthony (Edwin Kinter) is a pyromaniac who we learn accidentally burned his house down and killed his parents, whom he could not wake up.
Annie (Janet Wong) is a former Vietnamese child prostitute that has a knack for art.
We also learn that all Joe thinks he is there for is to fix and drive the bus, but he finds out his true knack for helping out the kids, especially shown when he reads Annie the riot act for her hooker-talk, and saves Anthony from setting another person’s property on fire, and even takes the kids fishing for the first time.
After fixing the bus in the rain on a dirt road, Joe and Vivian have trouble getting it out of the mud. When Joe leaves to get help, he is found walking in lock step with a group of Ku Klux Klansmen, who follow him back to the bus. Joe then manages to talk the head Klansman and the rest into getting the bus out to get the kids to a hospital in Washington. (He suddenly claimed they were all blind.) They agree surprisingly sympathetically and push them out of the mud.
Somewhere in Montana, Donald catches up with them at a motel, after finding out Vivian lied to him and falsified the kids records. After trying to flee in the middle of the night, Donald catches up with them and demands they return to Philadelphia, which the kids, Vivian and Joe all resist.
After arriving at the farm, Vivian meets with a banker in order to secure a $15,000 loan to save the farm. One of the other kids overhears them and tells the rest of the kids this. Joe then confronts the kids, who are whining and protesting about their fate. Joe learns about this as well and heads into town where he sees an ad for a “trapezoid scheme” and goes in to learn about it, dressed as a cowboy from Texarkana. Eventually he works his way into sitting with the group and schemes to rip them off. He does and gets Vivian her $15K, then leaves with her, while two guys from the group pursue them. After evading them and burning the money, they go back to the farm where they have an argument about the money.
Then they realize the old Rolls Royce from the bank is there, and found out the kids told the president of the bank (who is also the mayor of the town) a bunch of lies about what good things Joe and Vivian did, and it convinced the mayor to give the loan and make the kids a part of the community. After they celebrate, Donald shows up with a police officer demanding they all return to Philadelphia but has a confrontation with the mayor that he ends up losing. However, it did seem Joe was going to go back to Philly with Donald, but Donald gets to the end of the driveway, and changes his mind and lets Joe stay.