"A Sweet Attempt at Basketball History Goes a Bit Sour"


What You Need To Know:

SWEETWATER is the little-known story of basketball player Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton who became the first black player in the NBA. The movie starts with Jim Caviezel in a cameo as a sportswriter who gets in a cab and recognizes the older Sweetwater as his driver. He asks incredulously why Nat is driving a cab. Jump back to 1949, where Nat’s playing for the Harlem Globetrotters in an exhibition game with NBA world champion Minneapolis Lakers. The rest of the movie shows how Nat broke the racial barrier to become the first black player with the New York Knicks.

SWEETWATER has some good moments, but it needs more energy, drama and pizzazz. The NBA scenes are hampered by the fact that some of the white players have a gut. The Globetrotter games have some impressive ballplaying shenanigans, but the numerous scenes become wearing and repetitive. Everett Osborne as Sweetwater does a fine job with what he’s given. However, the movie leaves him pretty much a cipher. SWEETWATER is fairly clean but has about 15 mostly light obscenities. MOVIEGUIDE® advises caution for older children.


(BB, LL, V, N, A, D, MM):

Dominant Worldview and Other Worldview Content/Elements:
Positive story of a black athlete getting his first chance to be the first black player in the NBA, he stays strong amid hardships and stands up to one white coach in the Harlem Gobetrotters for all the player when they’re being ripped off, two Jewish coaches work to help him make it in the NBA, his mother mentions his God-given abilities in one scene; Language: 15 mostly light obscenities (include six “h” words, five “d” words, three “a” words, one SOB), one light profanity, one “n lover”, and two other “n” words

Light violence includes two men attack and punch and kick a black man in an alley, black man manages to punch one of the men hard in return, a racist white man punches a black man in another scene, and some rough basketball action

No sex

Upper male nudity in one or two scenes

Alcohol Use:
A few scenes of casual alcohol drinking in a nightclub

Smoking and/or Drug Use and Abuse:
Frequent smoking, but no drugs;

Miscellaneous Immorality:
Strong miscellaneous immorality includes black basketball players have to contend with racial animosity from whites who sneer at them for trying to play with whites but there are plenty of white fans of the Harlem Globetrotters and the title character who are cheering, a hotel manager refuses to rent rooms to black basketball players while insultingly displaying a poster that a trained monkey is allowed to stay there, a racist gas station owner threatens the all black Harlem Globetrotters team with a gun when they try to fill their gas tank for their bus, the Globetrotters coach is secretly paying white teams to lose and pays his winning black players less until the protagonist stands up to him, and the black protagonist is fouled hard in a few scenes but referees ignore the fact he fell unfairly.

More Detail:

Detailing the little-known story of pioneering basketball player Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (Everett Osborne) as he rose to become the first Black player in the NBA, and the bold team owner and coaches who took him there. SWEETWATER is a well-meaning movie that is thankfully almost free of offensive content – but also free of much excitement for the viewer.

The movie starts with Jim Caviezel in a cameo as a sportswriter who gets in a cab and recognizes the now-older Sweetwater as his driver. He asks incredulously why he is stuck driving a cab, and the movie fades into a jump back to 1949 New York City, where Sweetwater is a member of the Harlem Globetrotters in a match against the NBA (all-white) world champions Minneapolis Lakers at Madison Square Garden.

The Globetrotters put on a virtuosic display of on-court style, drawing huge laughs from the crowd as the exasperated Lakers are defeated – showing that the Globetrotters are actually the greatest team on the planet.

Sweetwater is lucky, because his stellar play has drawn the eye of the New York Knicks coach Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven), who knows greatness when he sees it. Joe starts asking Knicks owner Ned Irish (Cary Elwes) to find a way to convince NBA owners and the commissioner (Richard Dreyfuss) to finally break down the racial barriers and use Sweetwater as the man to do it.

Meanwhile, the Globetrotters are dealing with all forms of racism as a team, with their coach Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak, excellent in the movie’s best role) seeming to always be fighting for their best interests. Sweetwater gets some disappointing views of the fact that some of what Saperstein does for them is a façade and that knowledge helps him gain the leverage to convince Saperstein to break through to the top ranks of the sport.

Will Sweetwater manage to make the cut in the NBA? Can he handle the media pressure and the increased racism he faces from those who oppose his presence? Whom can he really trust to be on his side?

SWEETWATER should have an interesting tale to tell and writer-director Martin Guigui is well-intentioned, but the movie’s low budget limits how much electrifying pizzazz he can manage to work in vital game scenes. There are some good moments, but the NBA scenes are distracted by the fact that some of the white players have a gut and look like they’ve stepped directly out of a lifetime of being couch-potatoes straight onto the court of Madison Square Garden.

The Globetrotters games have some impressive ballplaying shenanigans by the legendary all-Black team, but the numerous scenes become wearing and repetitive. Some non-game scenes show more fire, particularly in an encounter with a racist rural gas station owner (Eric Roberts) and a terrific speech by Abe as he demands a good hotel for his players.

The biggest problem is that Guigui leaves Sweetwater pretty much a cipher. We don’t see a wife, children, or any real personal life outside of a couple of sweet encounters with a white female jazz singer performing in black nightclubs. Aside from some sweet talk and a brief kiss, however, their encounters don’t lead to a relationship of any sort.

The nearly unknown Osborne (he literally has two TV episode credits and no other movies) stars as Sweetwater and does a fine job with what little he’s given. He played multiple seasons of pro basketball in Australia, and that experience shows itself nicely in his on-court action scenes. However, the boring script doesn’t even allow him to show joy or swagger, even when he learns he’s making the leap to the NBA.

SWEETWATER features a truly impressive cast of actors in the supporting cast, with Jeremy Piven as the Knicks coach charismatically playing the role of a man who believes so much in the right of Black players to make the NBA that he is dynamic in his attempts. Cary Elwes as the Knicks owner is also fun to watch as he conspires to make the necessary deals to break the glass ceiling.

SWEETWATER is a competent movie that thankfully is not strongly offensive. It has some PG and PG-13 foul language, brief fighting, alcohol use in nightclubs, historical scenes of smoking. So, MOVIEGUIDE® advises caution for older children, though older adults are the most likely to enjoy and appreciate the tale the most.

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