Beginning in the 1940s, Sweetwater introduces the world to Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, the star attraction of the Harlem Globetrotters and one of the most talented basketball players on the planet at the time. After beating the NBA Champion LA Lakers in an exhibition match, the Trotters resume their tour of local arenas. But their shocking win draws the attention of New York Knicks owner Ned Irish (Cary Elwes) and coach Joe Lapchick (Piven) who are impressed by their style of play and, more specifically, Clifton’s immeasurable talent. Drawing the ire of executives and fans, the two men invite Sweetwater to play in the NBA and help bring change to the basketball court.
Written and directed by Martin Guigui, Sweetwater has some things that are going in its favour. Guigui understands the importance of the moment in question and tries to give it the dramatic emphasis that it deserves. The signing of Sweetwater to the Knicks is one of the great landmarks of modern sports and literally changed the game forever. As such, Guigui rightly wants his story to have a grand feel about its significance.
What’s more, there’s no question that the cast of Sweetwater is a solid foundation from which to build. Anytime you have the opportunity to work with Cary Elwes, Kevin Pollak, Jeremy Piven, Eric Roberts, Jim Caviezel and, most amazingly, the semi-retired Richard Dreyfuss, you begin your project with an incredible pedigree of acting talent that always offers the best that they can give to any project.
Most importantly though, relative newcomer Everett Osborne offers some good work as Sweetwater himself. There’s a strength within Osborne that translates well for a character that’s breaking the colour barrier and he makes the most of the moments that he’s given.
But… we need to talk about Sweetwater.
Despite its strong cast and its best intentions, something feels off about the film. This is a story that has tremendous opportunity to give voice to those who were oppressed at the hands of America’s shame. But, instead, the story seems to be told from the perspective of those around Sweetwater for the most part. Instead of spending time with its main character, much of the film feels like we’re hearing from the white community who think that it’s ‘time for change’. (For example, at one point, Sweetwater thinks of leaving the NBA but is convinced to stay by the coach and team owner.)
While Sweetwater may be a strong character, the film seems more interested in the people around him than the boundary-breaker himself. Guigui’s script tries hard to speak for the oppressed but fails to let them speak for themselves. This isn’t uncommon in films of this nature but, given all that we’ve continue to learn about empowerment through storytelling, this hurts the impact that Sweetwater could have on its audience. In a lot of ways, Sweetwater should have been a slam dunk as it focuses on an important moment that emphasizes the power of equity and cry for change. Yet, unfortunately, Sweetwater turns the ball over because of its misdirected voice. Barely three years after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball, Nat Clifton’s story is one that literally reshaped the entire sport of basketball forever… but Guigui’s script doesn’t seem to understand the impact of that moment or who’s voice to share.
In the end, Sweetwater isn’t entirely blown out… but it’s definitely a missed opportunity. Despite having the players that it needs, this franchise unfortunately doesn’t have the proper coaching to get the job done. After all, sometimes, players simply need to hear from a different voice.
Sweetwater is available in theatres and on VOD.