STUDIO: Warner Bros. Home Video
MSRP: $19.98
RATED: Unrated
RUNNING TIME: 92 Minutes

The Pitch

"We’ll take the journalist-hero schtick from All The President’s Men and add a bit of Mississippi Burning and voila! One riot."

The Humans

There’s a great cast for this show. Blair Underwood, James Earl Jones, David Straithairn, and Cicely Tyson stand out particularly.

The Nutshell

In 1965, a Los Angeles police officer tried to arrest a young black man who had been driving under the influence and without a license. That was the pivotal moment for a set of riots that lasted six days and resulted in thirty-four deaths. The riots were named the Watts Riots after the neighborhood in which they occurred. For those six days, any white person coming within the area of the riots was exposing themselves to direct assault.

At the same time, Bob Richardson, a resident from Watts and one of the few blacks on staff at the LA Times, convinced his bosses to let him go where white reporters couldn’t and to cover the story as it unfolded. His work helped earn the Times a Pulitzer and serves as the basis for this dramatized version of the prelude and fallout of the riots.

"Oh shit! It’s [esoteric car trivia]!"
"Damn! [Further automotive banter]"

The Package

The show was originally a TNT miniseries, so it’s early 90s television quality in sound and picture, which is to say passable, but not great. It’s got a fullscreen aspect ratio and a 2.0 stereo soundtrack.

The cinematography is uniformly good, with a combination of unobtrusive and shaky hand-held stuff during the riots. The score, by Thomas Newman, features piano work that, while lacking any memorable themes, provides an effective ambience.

That’s about all I can say, though, since subtitles don’t really count as bonus features. There are subtitles, though. Subtitles enough to satisfy all your tri-lingual fantasies.

I can see you through my special telescope.

The Lowdown

It’s gotta be a challenge, turning cultural events into watchable narrative films. We audiences demand sympathetic characters to anchor the narration, but situations such as the Watts Riot are such spiderwebs of interaction, violent and otherwise, that individuals get lost in the commotion.

As in life, so in Heat Wave. Writer Michael Lazarou tried to inject a bit of biographical interest into the characters of Bob Richardson and his family, but it was kind of a lost cause. As the focus continues to widen throughout the show, the details of the characters’ lives seem less and less important, despite several attempts to re-center interest on them. In the end, the personal victories and defeats seem inconsequential next to the social implications of the rioting.

Heat Wave features some fine performances, but they don’t have enough to do. The film takes too much of a godlike perspective to really conjure any emotion other than the abstract empathy for those who lived in times past.

6.5 out of 10