Directed by: Martin Guigui
Premise: Based on true events. In the 1950s, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton plays for the Harlem Globetrotters and is recruited to play for the New York Knicks and become the first Black NBA player.
What Works: Sweetwater is a well-meaning movie. The picture intends to celebrate the legacy of Nat Clifton and the breakdown of racial barriers in professional sports and Sweetwater mostly does that. The early portion of the film is the most interesting part as it depicts Clifton playing for the Harlem Globetrotters, an all-Black team that operated on the margins. Although they were serious about basketball, the Globetrotters were also showmen and their games combined athleticism with physical comedy. They also had to scratch for games and venues, running into segregation laws and other forms of intolerance. These early scenes contrast the Globetrotters’ outwardly happy appearance with their grim encounters with racism. That dissonance gives their public performance additional meaning. As depicted in Sweetwater, Globetrotters founder and coach Abe Saperstein paid his players meager wages while paying the opposing white players considerably higher rates and keeping quite a bit for himself. This tension complicates the film’s depiction of racism; even the white character campaigning against racism is also exploiting his Black players. Perhaps owing to the material, the performances of this first half of Sweetwater are also the strongest. The film is led by Everett Osborne as Clifton and Osborne does well in the role, conveying the physicality of the character but also the internal calculations of a Black man navigating a racist society. Kevin Pollak is also notable as Saperstein. He is allowed a degree of complexity that eludes the other white characters.
What Doesn’t: Sweetwater becomes a lot less interesting in its second half when Clifton joins the NBA. Here the film runs through the motions of a standard race-themed sports drama and Sweetwater’s racial politics are adjacent to The Blind Side. The film is less about the complexities of race or the experiences of Black athletes and more about reassuring white audiences of their own virtue. The complex racial tensions of Sweetwater’s first half are flattened in the second half; bad people are racist and good people are not with no equivocation and the filmmakers go out of their way to establish that the staff of the Knicks are good people. It’s all pandering and simplistic. Sweetwater also tends to feel artificial. It’s a period piece and a lot of the sets and costumes are a little too clean. The scenes look set dressed instead of an organic world in which these people live.
Bottom Line: Sweetwater is a nice sports drama but its racial politics are simplistic and trite. Its engagement is lopsided, with the first half more compelling than the second half. This film has the same appeal as The Blind Side but it also suffers similar faults.
Episode: #945 (April 23, 2023)