Strange name, "Heat Wave," for the strange fruit that fell that summer in 1965 when Watts burned. But then the title of Turner Network Television's two-hour drama tonight is just surface. How much is beyond that surface is another matter.
This is an ambitious enterprise for the Turner people, retelling the story of a young Los Angeles man who became an instant reporter-trainee 25 years ago for The Times because he was black, because he knew Watts and because, for better or worse, he was in the right place in the most fearful of times.
The enterprise is also ambitious in presentation: Four times today and tonight, "Heat Wave," starring Blair Underwood, Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland and Margaret Avery, will be shown over TNT in falling-duck prime-time fashion: 5 p.m., 7 p.m., 9 p.m., 11 p.m.
Take your choice.
"Heat Wave's" story is simple enough if not weighted down with predictable chance meetings, chilling confrontations, bad bad guys, good good guys and, of course, the inevitable, dramatic death-in-the-street scenes.
In Michael Lazarou's retelling of Robert Richardson's story--Richardson was the young Times messenger who wondrously knew key editorial people when Watts erupted and subsequently became a reporter-trainee as fires swept the streets--we get snatches of the black Los Angeles experience: '60s-type discrimination as a black father can't find construction work, but janitor jobs are plentiful. A high school student is told to aim his ambitions low. For mature women, domestic servitude with stereotypical white folks. Young black boys chased from the tracks along Alameda by crew-cut whites from Lynwood.
This is the first hour of the presentation, a sort of primer on prejudice in the Golden State. Then the all-too-familiar occurs: oppressive August heat (remember, this retelling of Watts is titled "Heat Wave"), two young men drinking and driving, a cautious CHP motorcycle officer, a strong-willed mother. Then the explosion in the streets that raged too deeply, too long and too tellingly. The heat wave turned into a social tidal wave.
There are rare incisive, insightful moments in the 120 minutes that attempt to re-experience the seven days of destruction that were Aug. 11 to 17, 1965. Only two stay in the mind.
One is the strange Impressionist image of Cicely Tyson as the matriarchal domestic. She stands alone on a Sunset bus stop in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel, carrying her bag of possessions. An empty taxi passes her. She waits patiently, hopefully for a ride, for a bus, for another taxi. Moments before, she had fled the white couple for whom she had worked for more than 10 years in quiet anger after the frightened, gun-buying husband had termed Watts residents savages. The picture cuts to cars being overturned. Police flailing at looters. We see the older woman again. She waits, gripping her bag. There will be a bus home. Then the fires burn harder, a clothing store explodes. She waits. Then, so very late, the bus fills the screen and she is gone. She has waited so very long.
The other telling image: Street reporter Richardson puts a tape recorder in front of an angry Watts man and urges him to describe his feelings as if he were talking to people beyond Watts. "You are hurting me," he says with anger/terror/passion, "and I want you to stop it right now."
You are hurting me.
The reviewer remembers another young black trainee at another Los Angeles newspaper as the fires of Watts sent explanation marks of smoke and panic into the air. "I live there and for the first time I'm afraid of what is happening to all of us."
What has happened? Where is the hurt 25 years later? The Avnet-Kerner production, directed by Kevin Hooks, supplies only some footnotes. The tough stuff stays in our hearts.