A comatose biopic about one of the first Black NBA players, Sweetwater mistakes its handsome production for human interest to the point where you wonder if the movie itself has even the faintest pulse.
It’s not a fault of the actors — most of whom serviceable — but the fault of Martin Guigui’s flat direction and oversimplified script. Guigui apparently fought tooth and nail for decades to get the story of Nat Clifton on the big screen. Most of his passion must’ve been reserved for boardrooms and pitch meetings as desperately little of it shows up in the wholly forgettable final product.
From the filmmaker who brought us that misguided 9/11 movie featuring Charlie Sheen and Whoopi Goldberg trapped in an elevator of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, Sweetwater tells the story of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (played by newcomer Everett Osborne), one of the first Black players integrated in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the 1950s. A World War II veteran from rural Arkansas who made a splash with the Harlem Globetrotters, the film wants to relay Clifton’s story in some ways, but mostly, it wants to show us the well-meaning whites who made it possible. As a result, there’s little in the way of connection to the titular figure.
The film is clunkily framed in the opening minutes when a sports reporter (Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ) hops in a Chicago cab in 1990 and realizes that Clifton is the driver. Cue the flashback. Sweetwater was a star as a Globetrotter, the “hot doggin'” pillar of a massively popular exhibition team that toured the country, and even had the gall to take on (and beat) jump-start NBA teams. Him and the team traveled by bus, scraping by on the small game-checks dolled out by owner/coach/driver Abe Sapperstein (Kevin Pollack). Despite being a popular attraction in “the boondocks,” the team often slept in their charter bus, as few hotels would accommodate Blacks during the segregation era.
It’s when the Globetrotters beat the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers in February 1948 that Sweetwater started to garner national recognition. The NBA had a rule against drafting Black players, but the by-laws said nothing of a Black player suiting up and playing in a game. The New York Knickerbockers head coach Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven) and team founder Ned Irish (Cary Elwes) eye Sweetwater as the star that could take their team to another level. This involves many hostile meetings with team owners and the NBA commissioner (Richard Dreyfuss), as well as reaching an agreement with Sapperstein to buy the star player’s contract.
Literally released last weekend, Ben Affleck’s Air was another story about signing a player to a deal that would forever alter the politics of the NBA and set a new path forward for the league. While Michael Jordan existed on the periphery, it was hardly noticeable because the closed-door drama and politics of shoe deals was brought to the foreground in a way that was cleverly illustrated. Sweetwater does more to humanize Lapchick and Irish than it does Clifton, and not in particularly interesting ways. Guigui keeps Clifton’s emotional depths and the magnitude of these racially driven conflicts on the bench, which causes the film to flatline faster than a turnover leads to a dunk.
Further undeveloped is Clifton’s rapport with his Globetrotter teammates, and later, his Knickerbocker squad, all of whom curiously mum and quietly accepting of this outsider joining their team. The most insight we get into Clifton is how he got his nickname: his love for sugary beverages, which was spawned when his mother put a couple spoons of sugar in his drinking water.
There are movies like 42, which told the story of Jackie Robinson’s entry and ascension in the MLB, and Race, which examined Jesse Owens breaking the color barrier in track and field. Those films had their own clichés, but they were given greater impact thanks to strong central performances and detailed storytelling. Sweetwater has no flare for the game nor the story it’s profiling. The basketball sequences are flaccidly shot, stripped of any in-game suspense, and, like the entire production, gravely lacking in resonance.
It’s a sad sight to see when a passion project lacks the very ingredient that led to its existence in the first place.
NOTE: Sweetwater is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Everett Osborne, Cary Elwes, Jeremy Piven, Richard Dreyfuss, Kevin Polak, Emmaline, Jim Caviezel, Eric Roberts, and Bobby Portis. Directed by: Martin Guigui.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!