When Johnny Johnson, a young black militant is shot during an armed confrontation with the police in a Los Angeles alley, a group of young white radicals, including Rene Freeman and her brother Michael, gather to protest police violence. As the sound of gunfire ricochets through the streets, Rene reflects back on the time she and Johnny had a brief affair: Rene's refusal to carry a gun results in Johnny calling her a hypocrite who mouths radical sentiments but is rooted firmly in the white power structure.
Unable to reconcile their discord, the two end their relationship. In the present, Johnny's friend and fellow revolutionary, Billy Joe Ashley, breaks into the office of Dr. Smalls to force the black doctor to treat the wounded Johnny. When Johnny learns that his mother wants to see him, he recalls an argument he had with his mother, who works as a housekeeper: Resigned to a lifetime of cleaning up after white people, Mrs. Johnson slaps Johnny and calls him a racist when he declares one day that he hates all whites. His thoughts returning to the present, Johnny voices his anger that Rene's brother Michael, who had promised Johnny that he and his white radical friends would join the confrontation, failed to appear. Johnny then reflects on the time he picked up his bootblack father at his booth on a street corner: On the drive home, Mr. Johnson admonishes his son to go back to school rather than challenge the system, arguing that getting himself killed is not the answer.
Now, at the protest, Johnny turns to his black girl friend Luanna, who has joined him in his cause, and rants that his mother "made a nigger out of his father." Johnny then remembers how he and Luanna met: At a neighborhood center where Luanna teaches children how to dance, Johnny and Billy Joe arrive for a secret meeting with Imir, the head of a national militant movement. There Imir tries to convince Johnny that it is his responsibility to lead a local insurrection against the police. Later, at a party, Johnny sees Luanna again and the two begin a passionate affair. Johnny then remembers the incident that compelled him to agree to lead the rebellion and drop out of school: Having obtained outstanding grades and test results, Johnny applies for a white collar job and is hired. However, when the owner of the company discovers that Johnny is black, the job offer is quickly rescinded. In the present, Billy Joe brings the doctor to treat Johnny in the alley, while all around them the sounds of gunfire signal the continuation of the armed confrontation.
When several of the militants run into the alley to warn that the police are rushing them and ask Johnny for advice. Johnny exhorts them to firebomb the street. Soon after, Johnny's mother breaks through the police lines to see her son. After Billy Joe accompanies the doctor back to his office to retrieve some instruments to remove the bullet from Johnny's body, Luanna and Mrs. Johnson argue over Johnny's welfare. On their way back to the office, Billy Joe spots a row of police with rifles lined up along the rooftops. As one of the officers tells a colleague that he is reluctant to take part in a massacre, Billy Joe shoots and kills a police officer, sparking the police to open fire. Terrified, Dr. Smalls runs into the street holding his hands above his head, yelling that he is a doctor, but the police kill him. As the police swarm across the rooftops, Michael, Rene and two white friends break through the police lines to help Johnny.
When Michael sees one of the black militants shot by the police, he recalls an argument he and Johnny had with his bigoted father over dinner: When Johnny promotes violence as the only way to change society, Mr. Freeman advocates allowing the democratic process to take its course. After Johnny leaves, an irate Mr. Freeman declares that Johnny is dangerous and advocates police brutality to deal with people like him. In the present, Billy Joe rallies the remaining militants to charge the police. Once Billy Joe is cornered in a building, the police order him to come out, promising not to shoot if he surrenders. As a test, Billy Joe waves his shirt out the door, and when a sharpshooter fires at it, he runs out the door firing his gun and is shot down in a blaze of bullets. In the alley, as Johnny reaffirms that some of them must die to overthrow the "system," Michael and Rene finally reach him. As sirens wail in the background, a sharpshooter hits Mrs. Johnson and Johnny. When the police give them one minute to surrender or face certain death, Michael and Rene decide to remain with their friend.
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