Hall of Famer, Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, makes history as the first African American to sign an NBA contract, forever changing how the game of basketball is played.
Though not the household name Jackie Robinson is, the contributions of Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd and Nat Clifton are no less significant. As the first three Black players to be signed to play in the NBA, they faced many of the same problems their baseball counterpart did in terms of peer acceptance as well as physical and emotional abuse. Martin Guigui’s “Sweetwater” focuses on Clifton’s rise from the basketball barnstorming circuit to playing for the New York Knicks, a journey depicted with a proper sense of earnestness. Unfortunately, its adherence to the sports biography formula and tendency to soft-pedal the troubles these players faced undo it in the end.
Guigui uses a clumsy framing device, starting things on the wrong foot with a sportswriter (Jim Caviezel) getting into a cab in 1990’s Chicago. The Bulls playoff game I s on the radio, prompting him comment on Michael Jordan’s prowess and how he compares to former players. Little does he know fortune is shining on him – or is it lazy screenwriting– for his driver is none other than Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and there’s just enough time during their ride from the Loop to O’Hare for him to tell a story.
I’m sure that if I were in a cab with Clifton and he were telling me his life story, it would be a fascinating tale to hear. However, in Guigui hand’s it’s like sitting through a dry history lecture told by a disinterested teacher. Initially we see Clifton (Everett Osborne) toiling away for Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak) as part of his Harlem Globetrotters, never getting the pay or recognition he deserves. However, New York Knicks coach Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Pevin) is eager to shake things up and knows the future of the league lies in Clifton’s hands as well as those of his peers. Convincing the team owner Ned Irish (Cary Elwes) its time to draft a Black player, the two set out to revolutionize the game.
Many of the problems here are the same as those that plagued Brain Helgeland’s “42.” In wanting to make Robinson’s story palpable for all and accessible to pre-teens, the filmmakers blunt the trials these athletes had to endure which robs the story of most of its power. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with “Sweetwater” other than it plays like a rote exercise, nothing more than an interesting historical sidenote. The sense of catharsis we feel in sharing an athlete’s triumphs in the best sports films is absent here and it suffers for playing it safe.
However, the veteran cast does their level best to make it work and they nearly succeed. I can’t remember Pevin playing a sympathetic role or being more effective than he is as Lapchick, while Elwes is engaging as well. Pollak finds some meat in the complex role of Saperstein, playing the role as a saint as well as an opportunist. And Dreyfuss effectively tones things down as Maurice Podoloff, head of the NBA. As for Osborne, he’s fine but his role isn’t complex enough for him to really make an impression.
The most fascinating scenes in the film take place in the NBA boardroom as the owners argue over the impending changes, they are powerless to stop. Their conversations regarding the economics of the game and how the arrival of Black players will impact that are raw and fascinating. Had Guigui focused on that, he might have made a groundbreaking film regarding how players are treated as nothing more than commodities. As it is, “Sweetwater” proves forgettable and hardly worthy of Clifton and his fellow players’ trials.
2 1/2 Stars