The year is 1962; both rhythm and blues music and the civil rights movement are in their infancy. In a black community in New Orleans, the Golden Geronimoes, a local gang that specializes in small-time fencing, are their contagious knack for generating good times, and most of all, for their leader , a man called Staggerlee.
part man, part myth, Staggerlee was orphaned as an infant and raised on the bayou before coming to New Orleans armed only with a pair of dice, a guitar and a pistol. Using these three tools, as well as his irresistible charm, he was able to survive in the city, fighting, gambling and singing his way to the top.
As the film begins, it is the eve of Mardi Gras, a time in New Orleans when at any given moment someone is singing and playing music somewhere nearby. Against this dramatically potent backdrop, Staggerlee, tired of playing second fiddle to a more powerful rival gang, declares war on its leader , "Cleanhead" Loach. Soon after, a scuffle between the two gangs result in the accidental death of Billy Lyon, one of Cleanhead's men, at the hands of Staggerlee. In response , Cleanhead vows to get revenge.
Meanwhile, June Forten, social worker from Philadelphia, has just arrived in town. A product of a middle-class family and a relatively sheltered upbringing, June is very much a newcomer to the wild, raucous world of inner-city New Orleans. Yet she feels very strongly about her dual goals—to organize a civil rights movement in New Orleans and to enjoy the unique charms of the city as much as possible. When June is assigned to help Billy Lyon's Widow, her path crosses that of Staggerlee.
When they first meet , June is interested in Staggerlee as an object of sociological study more than anything else. To her, he represents the underside of black society that she never experienced first hand. For his part , Staggerlee sees June as little more than a potential sexual conquest, just one in a long line. But as their relationship continues , it begins to develop into something greater.
However, there are quite a few points on which June and Staggerlee don't quite see eye-to-eye. Staggerlee doesn't share June's concern about civil rights and refuses to help her organize a protest against the local Woolworth's, which is segregated. As a result, June goes to Cleanhead for help, believing him to be an honest and influential businessman. Cleanhead, however, is irritated by June's interference with Billy Lyon's widow and plots to get her "out of the way", all the while making repeated attempts on Staggerlee's life.
When Staggerlee gets wind of June's dangerous an naive association with Cleanhead, he flees the city with June in tow, returning to the village where he grew up. During the days that June and Staggerlee spend in this peaceful sanctuary, their bond grows stronger as they develop a respect and love for each other that goes beyond their mutual sexual attraction. In June, Staggerlee sees a toughness and independence that he had thought women were incapable of possessing. In Staggerlee, June sees a tremendous amount of tenderness and sensitivity hidden beneath his smooth veneer. And even as Staggerlee teaches June about the thrilling excitement of unrestrained passion, he also begins to understand the importance of attaining civil rights for blacks in the south.
Eventually, Staggerlee realizes he will never be able to enjoy the sense of fulfillment that June has given him unless he can return to New Orleans and confront Cleanhead once and for all. As June and Staggerlee arrive in the city , the Mardi Gras celebrations are in full swing. In the midst of the swirling , dreamlike barrage of wild costumes, music and dancing, Staggerlee has his final battle with Cleanhead and triumphs. Announcing "I'm tired of killing black folks," Staggerlee spares Cleanhead's henchmen and instead uses his increased authority to lead a huge crowd into Woolworth's in protest of its segregation. In the end, it is June's influence that enables Staggerlee to face his two biggest challenges: Cleanhead and the need to lead a socially and politically responsible life.