We’ve all heard people talk about movies by saying, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Sweetwater disproves that notion. This biopic of basketball player Nat Clifton is very traditional in every conceivable way. It could easily have come out in the 1970s. That’s kind of the problem. It’s a nice, pleasant film whose storytelling formula has been done so many times that it now feels old-fashioned rather than relevant or exciting.
The story begins with the oldest of clichés, the subject reflecting back on his own career. Clifton, whose nickname gives the movie its title, is a cab driver who regales his sportswriter passenger with memories of his time playing. We then flash back to the 1940s. Clifton (Everett Osborne) plays with the Harlem Trotters, an all-Black team guided by white manager/coach Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollack). They specialize in fancy moves that their white counterparts can’t begin to replicate. Because of the color of their skin, the men aren’t allowed to play in the NBA, leaving them stuck in dinky little small-town games where the opposing team is also on Abe’s payroll.
Enter Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven), the coach of the New York Knickerbockers. He not only believes Clifton is good enough to play in the NBA, he also thinks it’s about time the color line was broken. Joe convinces team owner Ned Irish (Cary Elwes) to take a chance. For that to happen, Irish must convince the other team owners, led by Maurice Podoloff (Richard Dreyfuss). Several of them are not receptive to the idea of Black players in their lily-white sport.
Sweetwater tries to develop Clifton as a character, yet largely remains the story of a talented Black athlete told from the perspective of the white men who created an opportunity for him that didn’t previously exist. The movie’s best moments focus on Clifton’s drive, his awareness – bordering on bitterness – that he isn’t allowed to play his chosen sport at the top levels. Only in the rousing third act does the story finally give him his due, as he takes part in an official game, faces coaches who are unfairly hard on him, and strives to prove that he belongs on that court.
The first two acts are shakier. Writer/director Martin Guigui gets bogged down in a goes-nowhere subplot about Clifton and a white soul singer, as well as in too many similar scenes of white guys wringing their hands over what it would mean to desegregate professional basketball. Sweetwater vastly simplifies the racism of the day, which needs to be the heart of the plot. We want to see Clifton smash through that barrier. Mostly, the issue is presented in the tamest manner possible, save for one tense encounter with a bigoted gas station owner, played by Eric Roberts. The behind-the-scenes stuff should accentuate his personal story, not overpower it.
Having said that, there are some definite positives to Sweetwater. Every single performance is very good. The basketball scenes are effective because they’re shot simply, allowing us to focus on the moves instead of distracting us with flashy editing. And, of course, Nat Clifton’s life has obvious appeal. He is a prominent sports figure who helped change the game in an important manner. You can’t not find that at least basic-level interesting.
Movies about racial matters can go in only two directions: soft or hard. It’s Driving Miss Daisy or Do the Right Thing, Green Book or BlacKkKlansman. Sweetwater is the former. It would have had more impact as the latter.
out of four
Sweetwater is rated PG-13 for some racial slurs, violence, and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.