Monday, February 12, 2024

Tonight's Movie: Sweetwater (2023)

In 1947 Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, as depicted in the film 42 (2013).

Three years later three black basketball players broke into the NBA: Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton.

SWEETWATER (2023) tells the story of Clifton (Everette Osborne), bracketed by scenes with the older Clifton, now a taxicab driver, talking to a sportswriter (Jim Caviezel).

Sweetwater Clifton was an Army veteran who played for the Harlem Globetrotters in the late '40s. His exceptional abilities came to the attention of New York Knickerbockers manager Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven) and owner Ned Irish (Cary Elwes, THE PRINCESS BRIDE).

There was strong resistance from some NBA owners regarding integrating basketball, but Irish pushed ahead and bought out Clifton's contract from Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak). Other teams signed Cooper and Lloyd, and four days after Lloyd (Bobby Portis Jr.) became the first black NBA player, for the Washington Capitols, Clifton made his debut for the Knicks.

Clifton helped lead the Knicks to their first appearance in the NBA finals, and in 1957 he became the oldest player to be named a first-time all-star.

I found SWEETWATER an enjoyable watch, if not as good as I was hoping. Osborne is solid in the title role, and he's well supported by Elwes and Piven, along with Richard Dreyfuss as NBA president Maurice Podoloff.

The film has a number of nice moments but the overall film falls rather flat, with the script being somewhat meandering and missing expected storyline crescendos.

While Osborne is good, the script fails to dig deeply enough into Sweetwater's life and motivations. A flashback regarding moving away from his mother as a child is never explained, and while enjoyable, his scenes with a jazz singer named Jeanne (Emmaline) don't go anywhere either. Like Sweetwater's mother, Jeanne fades from the film.

For that matter, we also don't learn how it is that Sweetwater ended up driving a cab after his basketball career ended.

I'll add that I don't know enough about Saperstein to know for sure, but I suspect the film treated him disrespectfully, alternately treating him as cheap or the butt of jokes. The man created and coached the Harlem Globetrotters and introduced NBA innovations such as the three-point rule. I think his character deserved better.

In the end, it's a pleasant watch, but I couldn't help feeling that Sweetwater's story could have been shaped into a stronger film.

SWEETWATER runs 118 minutes. It was written and directed by Martin Guigui, who also composed the music along with Jeff Cardoni. It was filmed by Massimo Zeri.

Parental Advisory: Like another recently viewed sports film, THE BOYS IN THE BOAT (2023), SWEETWATER is a very mild PG-13. In fact, it's hard for me to understand why it's not a PG rating. It's an inspirational story which I think would be fine for children under 13 who are interested in the subject matter.

SWEETWATER is available on Blu-ray and DVD. It can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

The trailer is here.


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