Heat Wave offers the 1965 riots in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts as the story of one man, Bob Richardson (L.A. Law‘s Blair Underwood), and his search for truth and justice. As Michael Lazarou’s fact-based script recounts it, Richardson was working as a messenger for the Los Angeles Times when the riots broke out. The best thing about Heat Wave is that it doesn’t try to romanticize the banality of what touched off the riots — a skirmish between a white policeman and a black motorist arrested on drunken-driving charges. The perceived harassment became an excuse for rioters who had long felt either oppressed or ignored by the city’s white establishment to express their rage.
The portion of Heat Wave that deals with the rioting and its origins is provocative and interesting. But most of the TV movie is about Richardson, who lived with his family in Watts, and the ways in which they struggle to attain middle-class respectability while many of their neighbors loot and burn.
Heat Wave is, ultimately, the riots as soap opera, full of facile uplift. Underwood is excellent as Richardson, who was suddenly named a Times reporter as soon as the riots began. The reason? White reporters couldn’t go into Watts without being attacked, we’re told.
Lazarou’s script barely suggests Richardson’s profound ambivalence about being a homeboy reporting on the riots for the white press, but Underwood . conveys some of this through eyes filled with pain. It’s as if the actor was straining to convey in his face everything the script does not. Glenn Plummer is even better as Bob’s childhood friend J.T., who grows up to be a bitter alcoholic working in a car wash and is one of the first Watts residents to pick up a rock and smash a store window.
James Earl Jones is trapped in a clichéd role — the neighborhood’s old wise man, the owner of a shoeshine parlor, who spouts such sentiments as ”There’s only one truth — not the white man’s truth, or the black man’s truth, but the plain truth.”
Worst of all is a subplot featuring Cicely Tyson as Richardson’s grandmother. She works as a maid for a prosperous white family in Beverly Hills. Her employers, played by Sally Kirkland and Michael Greene, are shaken when they hear of the riots, and when the husband refers to blacks as savages, Tyson is forced to say the line, ”You call us savages?…Why, I washed your underwear.”
Tyson’s stiff, glaring performance doesn’t help, either. It’s sad that this once-subtle actress has become so mannered and obvious. These days, Tyson never seems to play any character who isn’t noble and long-suffering; as a result, she has managed to make these admirable qualities boring. C