Sweetwater Synopsis: Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton (Everett Osborne), the star attraction of the Harlem Globetrotters, changes basketball when he becomes the first black player to sign a contract with the NBA in the fall of 1950.
The lasting impact of Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton receives the biopic treatment in Sweetwater.
Few figures are more deserving of a feature film than Clifton. While we regularly recognize the importance of trailblazing athletes like Jackie Robinson and Ernie Davis, Sweetwater’s journey from the high-flying Globetrotters to becoming one of the NBA’s first black athletes is an overlooked yet essential chapter in the annals of American history.
It’s hard to fathom how such a monumental story could flatline onscreen, yet Sweetwater squanders its potential at every turn. This emotionally inert and technically inept feature follows a hackneyed sports movie playbook that feels just as dated as the 1950s backward politics.
Writer/director Martin Guigui has been fighting to get Sweetwater made for nearly two decades, and to his credit, his efforts are a noble pursuit. The story of Sweetwater remains deeply resonant in our challenging modern landscape, with the basketball star’s unbreakable resolve and tremendous courage serving as a towering symbol for social justice reform. Yet, his arduous journey is also a painful reminder of how far we still have to go. The callous commodification of black athletes remains everpresent, placing many in an uncompromising spotlight shrouded by jeering commentary and an overbearing lack of empathy.
Unfortunately, Sweetwater bricks its numerous shots at meaningful reflections. Guigui’s screenplay occasionally touches on pertinent dynamics related to the basketball star, from the demonization of Clifton’s innovative play style to the financial exploitation encumbering his success at every step. These topics desperately call for nuanced insights, but Guigui panders to his audience by only providing shallow observations.
He misguidedly wraps his concepts in a neat package devoid of complexion, unintentionally creating an insincere depiction of the essential voices fighting against racial bigotry. Characters in Sweetwater are either constructed as affable sympathizers to Clifton or cartoonishly vile antagonists, lacking the moral ambiguity needed to delve into the thorny difficulties of this seismic societal transition.
The overwhelming simplicity is most evident with Clifton’s recruiters, Knicks coach Joe Lapchick and owner Ned Irish. Guigui paints both as virtuous voices of change, but this approach undermines the undeniable benefit both received in adding a player of Clifton’s talents to their roster. Was this a decision made to benefit them or black America as a whole?
Sweetwater ultimately proves to be too ill-equipped to ask tough questions about the central figures in its narrative. Additionally, it’s hard to fathom why these characters receive nearly equal screen time to the film’s titular subject. Star Everett Osborne’s poised performance as Clifton regrettably takes a backseat to the circus theatrics of Jeremey Piven and Cary Elwes – both of whom offer over-the-top turns to compensate for the material’s lack of textures. Despite Hollywood’s progress in expanding representation, audiences still have to sift through another story of black triumph forced through the lens of white spectators.
A myriad of tired sports movie contrivances further accents the falterings of Sweetwater. Guigi’s direction is absent of any creative vigor, recycling the same brown-tinted color grading, dated music inclusions, and uninspired framing choices featured in countless other biopics. Likewise, his presence behind the camera screeches ideas through tired devices. Whether it’s grand speeches or a heavy dose of saccharine sentimentality, Guigi struggles to unearth the rousing moments he desperately seeks. I do think Guigi comes from an earnest place with this project, but the wayward execution throughout does not make that present onscreen.
Good intentions never translate into a quality film with Sweetwater. I am sad to report that this sports biopic provides a bargain bin effort in its adaptation of a remarkable true story.
Sweetwater is now playing in theaters.