Heat Wave (1990)
Director: Kevin Hooks.
Starring: Cicely Tyson (Ruthana Richardson), Blair Underwood (Bob Richardson), James Earl Jones (Junius Johnson), Margaret Avery (Roxie Turpin), David Strathairn (Bill Thomas), Glenn Plummer (J.T. Turpin), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Clifford Turpin), Paris Vaughan (Lada), Harold Pruett (John Riggs), Adam Arkin (Art Berman), Robert Hooks (Reverend Brooks), Michael Greene (Mr. Canfield), Charlie Korsmo (Jason, age 12), Sally Kirkland (Mrs. Canfield), T.E. Russell (Dominique Freeman).
Made for TV movie.
Los Angeles Watts riots of 1965
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
August 13, 1965. Watts was burning narrates Bob Richardson. And his best friend J.T. Turpin was burning too -- burning with rage. How did so many fall prey to such despair?
It was six years ago that we left Alabama for California. The four included Bob and J.T. along with J.T.'s father (Clifford Turpin) and mother (Roxie Turpin). Bob says: "The hope was so sweet you could taste it." Clifford teases his wife Roxie about his liking the famous black singer Lena Horne. Roxie is sick of hearing about her. Bob says we came by the thousands. No more separate but equal.
May 1959. The four people from Alabama stop to visit Ruthana Richardson, the grandmother of Bob. She is very happy to see the four of them. She warns the fellows about going down to Alameda Street. She then has everyone go to church with her. In church Bob sees a pretty girl named Lada in who he takes an interest. An older man named Junius Johnson, who likes Bob's grandmother, gives Bob some advice about dealing with girls.
The two fellows go down to Alameda Street. Bob says he's going to Hollywood. Soon they are followed by some white guys in a car. The whites chase the guys in their car, then they get out and run after them. Bob and T.J. get away by running across the road and finding a refuge with other black people. One of the white guys shouts: "Niggers stay out of Lynwood!"
Clifford Turpin tries to get a job in construction but is constantly rejected because of prejudice and discrimination. He is becoming more and more discouraged as he keeps being rejected. Grandmother has worked for 10 years for the Canfield family. She tells Clifford that because the family is so influential they can probably help him get a job. Clifford rejects this idea saying that he doesn't want anybody's charity.
At school T.J. tells the guidance counselor that he wants to be an airline pilot. The counselor discourages him saying that he needs four years of college and his college board scores are rather low. Also in school Bob and Lada kiss each other. They split and then Bob and T.J. talk. T.J. says he had decided to become an auto mechanic. Bob can't believe that he would change his mind so quickly. T.J. doesn't want to talk about it.
Grandmother asks Mrs. Canfield for a referral for Clifford. Mrs. Canfield is happy to get one for her from her husband. When Mr. Canfield criticizes his wife for buying a new dress Roxie quickly comes to her defense and Mr. Canfield apologizes, even if it was not an enthusiastic apology. On another day Clifford reports for a construction job. But the hiring man tells him that all he has is a janitorial position. There must have been some mix-up. Clifford swallows his pride and says: "I'll take the job." At home he tells the family that he got the job. The family starts dancing in celebration. At night Clifford confesses to his wife that he had to take the job as janitor instead of getting a construction job.
Dr. Martin Luther King marched in Montgomery and there was also a march at Selma, Alabama. There may have been optimism in Selma but not in Watts.
October 1964. Bob comes home from serving in the armed forces. In bed with Lada, he hops up and tells her that he is applying for a messenger job with the L.A. Times. Walking outside we see that there is a big advertisement saying to vote No on Proposition 14. In the newspaper is the headline: "U.S. Planes Bombing North Vietnamese Ports."
In their car Clifford and Roxie are stopped by the police. They are treated badly even though they didn't do anything wrong. One of the policemen tells Clifford that he's not in Alabama anymore.
Bob got the messenger job at the newspaper and is very happy. J.T. works at a local car wash. Bob visits him and asks him why he stopped writing letters to him when he was in the service. His friend tells him that just because he took some classes at Compton College, he thinks he's a big shot. He adds: "Bobby, you are just a nigger like everybody else." Bob is shocked by the anger in his friend's voice.
Roxie asks Bob to watch out for Clifford. He has been getting drunk and got fired from his job. Bob goes down to Junius's shoe repair shop. Clifford is there. Junius is trying to cheer up Clifford by using the example of Jackie Robinson, the Dodger ball player who integrated major league baseball. What would have happened to Jackie if he got mad at every white man who said something nasty to him. Bob and J.T. talk together and soon are fighting with each other. Junius breaks them up and warns them that he will hurt both of them if they start fighting again.
In church Junius moves close to sit with Grandmother. Later Junius invites her to a barbecue. She is very happy about the invitation.
A policeman stops Bob and Lada on the street. He refers to Lada as Trixie Trim. As the policeman calls in the stop Bob and Lada turn their backs and start walking away. The policeman pulls out his weapon and threatens to shoot them if they don't stop. His young partner, John Riggs, intervenes and tells his colleague that he will handle the situation. He speaks with Bob and Lada. He is very sympathetic to their situation, but tells them they did something very foolish by not stopping when told to do so by a policeman. He lets them go.
August 11, 1965. It is a hot day and a hot evening. The constant harassment of the minorities by the police had everyone on edge. Officer Riggs stops at Junius's shoe store complaining about his sore feet. Junius thought there was going to be some trouble and is relieved that the officer is friendly. Junius puts some Kotex in the bottom of his shoes and gives them back to the officer. Riggs is pleased but a little embarrassed when Junius tells everybody he put Kotex in the bottom of the shoes.
The editor-in-chief at the newspaper tells reporter Art Berman that he can't get the football tickets they wanted. Bob sees this as his opportunity and tells the two men that he can get the tickets for them at face value. They are very grateful. When they walk away, Bob says partly in fear: "Four tickets! Oh, God!" To get the tickets he seeks out Victor Denby, Assistant Director of Ticket Sales, and pushes his way into his office. He gets the tickets.
Two black brothers drive home from a bar. Dominique is too drunk to drive, but drives anyway.
Bob gives the four tickets to Art Berman.
A motorcycle cop follows Dominique and his brother, but they do not stop until they get back to their apartment building. The officer tells them that they were going 50 mph in a 35 mph zone. And then he smells the liquor on the driver's breath. He has Dominique get out of the car in order to be tested. Unit 12 is arriving soon behind the officer. Dominique tries to talk his way out of trouble, but gets nowhere. Then he starts to resist arrest. Cops arrive on the scene and cooperate in taking down Dominique. Dominque's brother starts to help him and then his mother also comes to his aid and gets herself arrested. The situation is now getting out of control because there is a huge crowd of angry black people around the police. J.T. throws a rock at one of the police car's windows and smashes a hole in it. Code 3 is shouted into the police radios.
By the evening after the arrest of the two brothers and the rumor about a pregnant woman having been beaten by the police, the stage was set for a night of violence. Blacks start throwing rocks at the police and they charge the rock throwers. Bob arrives with three other guys from the newspaper. A policeman hits Roxie with his baton on the back of her legs and she goes down. Other blacks grab some white guys and start beating them. They go around knocking out car windows. A TV car is set on fire and the rioters shout: "Burn, baby, burn!"
At the newspaper the boss says that he needs a Negro reporter. Bob, back from the riots, is there and he jumps up to say that he lives in Watts and he can do the job. The boss is doubtful so Bob says that he just saved two of his reporter's asses out there in Watts. He adds that he is the only one who is qualified to do the job. So the boss tells Bob to go to Watts and phone in his report to Art. Bob heads out for Watts. Once there he is grabbed by several cops and is about to get hit, when officer Riggs saves him by saying he knows Bob. The rioters are now throwing Molotov cocktails. Bob calls in his report. Art gives the report to the boss, who likes it a lot. He tells Art to have the article printed as is. Bob finally got his big break.
At the Canfields Grandmother brags about her grandson Bob and the article he wrote. But others are not as pleased as Grandmother. J.T. and another fellow tell Bob that he is an Uncle Tom bastard for writing an unfavorable article about the black community and the riot. Junius, however, supports Bob. He tells Bob that he told the truth and that's the best he could do or anybody could ask of him.
Black politicians have a press conference and urge peace in the community. They say don't match violence with violence. A young man speaks to contradict the politicians. He says the young people are completely fed up and that they are going after the whites in Inglewood and Playa del Rey.
At the Canfield home Grandmother tells the Canfield boy that she will protect him from any harm. Meanwhile, the whites are buying shotguns to defend themselves. One of the men is Mr. Canfield. When he returns home he shocks both Grandmother and Mrs. Canfield. The wife opposes having a gun in the house, but the husband will not relent. Grandmother gets so upset that she says she has to go home. Before she goes she asks the husband: "You call me a savage, Mr. Canfield? I've been a part of the family for over 10 years." She adds that she is going to pray for him. Grandmother leaves.
The mayor of Los Angeles goes to San Francisco for a previous commitment -- a political fund raiser. Bob comments that his action told everyone how low Watts was as a priority.
Bob speaks with officer Riggs. The officer speaks of never having before been so hated by so many different people. Bob tells him to not take it personally.
The taxis refuse to pick up Grandmother. More Molotov cocktails are thrown at Watts's businesses. Clifford is arrested. A black business owner stands by his shop begging the bombers to please spare his shop. Bob gets a brief interview with one of the rioters who says to the whites: "You are hurting me and I want you to stop it right now." Looting becomes very common. The police kill two black snipers on the top of a tall building. Bob goes to the shoe shop to visit with Junius. The shoe repairman thinks about the old days in the area when the whites would come down to see famous black entertainers perform in night clubs.
Bob sees officer Riggs get shot by a black man struggling with the police to keep control of his pistol. Riggs dies. Bob is upset over the death and holds the officer's head in his hands. He then sees J.T. with a Molotov cocktail. J.T. wants him to throw the cocktail, but Bob refuses. So J.T. tosses it at the business and it explodes.
Looking back at it, Bob asks why did it take so long for the community to erupt. He also says that he needed to make some sense out of this madness. Tanks and jeeps of the National Guard start arriving. The people of the community are ordered to return to their homes. Grandmother walks through the riot area. She stops to help two young children whose mother is lost. The army says that all looters will be shot on sight. Firing starts to break out among the troops. Junius gets scared for Grandmother and he rushes out into the street to help her. He is shot in the back and goes down. Bob rushes to his aide. His Grandmother comes over and Bob tells her that Junius loved her.
Bob criticizes the chief of police of Los Angeles. He says the mayor spoke of black people as monkeys in a zoo. And he was at a $100 dollar a plate fund-raiser dinner instead of being in Los Angeles to manage the uprising. Some 15,000 troops descended on L.A. Bob writes a hard-hitting article that the boss thinks he cannot afford to publish. He says one of the problems is that the whites in LA see the Negro issue as a Southern issue. He also says that Bob has no sense of objectivity. Furthermore, there will be hell to pay if they publish the article. And Bob's shot at being a journalist could go right down the toilet. But Bob still insists it should be published. It is published.
Grandmother waits at the bus stop. Mrs. Canfield pulls up to pick her up in her car. She tells Grandmother that in time everything works out. Grandmother grabs and holds her employer's hand. On the street Bob runs into J.T. who tells him: "You told the truth."
Six days after the riots Bob Richardson was hired as the L.A. Times's first black reporter trainee. In 1966 the LA Times was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Watts uprising. In the riots some 4,600 were arrested; 1,200 were injured; and 35 were killed (30 of whom were black). In 1989 there were 364 gang related homicides in the Watts area.
Good movie. My wife and I both enjoyed it. The story was compelling and kept our interests throughout. The actors were first rate. The situation of the blacks is presented objectively, neither supporting the rioters or denigrating the rioters. (If you disagree, you're probably a redneck.)
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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