Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Martin Guigui has been trying to get the story of Nat Clifton to the screen for years, and has just now succeeded. Sweetwater tells a story that, until now, has gone relatively unnoticed, and while the film’s paint-by-numbers nature might hold it back from having the impact it desires, audiences who watch it will nonetheless feel somewhat moved.
The movie tells the story of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, a basketball player who, after playing for the Harlem Globetrotters, is recruited by the New York Knicks to be the first African-American player to sign an NBA contract. In terms of sports biopics, this one is certainly conventional, but the story is plenty inspiring enough for it to work.
The film’s biggest issue is that, like so many other movies dealing with themes of race, it suffers from framing it through a white perspective. Although this is Sweetwater Clifton’s story, we’re seeing it more through the eyes of coach Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven) and Knicks owner Ned Irish (Cary Elwes).
Although the film’s message is undeniably a good one — that racism is bad and people in privilege should be allies to support those who are disenfranchised — the way in which it is presented is somewhat skewed. For example, the emotional climax of the movie is Irish being mugged for having Sweetwater on his team. While it clearly wasn’t the intention, this could be read as minimizing the pain and trauma of people of color by focusing instead on white people being “punished” for helping.
That being said, if the film does succeed in one thing, it is convincing viewers of the importance of this story. The fact that Clifton is an unsung hero of the sport — having paved the way for some of the most iconic athletes in history — yet he largely lived an unglamorous life, even ending up as a cab driver as shown in the movie’s framing device, is sad. A movie like this, even if it is somewhat sentimental, goes a long way in giving a platform to important stories and people like this.
The entire cast of the film is strong, lending the movie a very professional feel. Lead actor Everett Osborne is a relative newcomer, but he does quite well in the role. Osborne’s background in professional basketball overseas goes a long way, but he also pulls off the entertainer side of Clifton’s personality quite well. The supporting cast — including Cary Elwes, Richard Dreyfuss, and Kevin Pollak — is also good.
The basketball scenes in the film are somewhat plainly shot, but the choreography is quite strong. After all, Clifton started his career in the sport as a Harlem Globetrotter, meaning that his play style was unique and unorthodox. The movie really takes advantage of this to create entertaining sequences, even if the cinematography and editing aren’t super kinetic.
Sweetwater does not rise above the pack of sports biopics, but it’s all-around well-made and well-acted. It’s largely inoffensive, even in its approach to timely themes, but it’s still nice to see stories like this get the spotlight.
Sweetwater hits theaters on April 14.