The tale of the first Black player signed in the NBA is a confusing exercise in nostalgia.
Sweetwater may be one of the weirdest films released in multiplexes this year. Not mindbendingly strange like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, meta-odd like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, or even discordant like Air’s mixed of pro and anti-capitalist sentiments.
Just weird. Like, “What are we trying for here, folks?”
A Story Worth Telling
As the tale goes, writer-director Martin Guigui has spent more than 15 years trying to bring Sweetwater Clifton’s (Everett Osborne) story to the big screen. It’s an admirable goal. Clifton was one of three Black men to join the NBA and the first to sign a deal. Before that, he helped establish the look and feel of the Harlem Globetrotters’ mix of athleticism and theatricality, including being part of the squad that bested the all-white Minneapolis Lakers in 1948.
After leaving the NBA, professional basketball seemed to forget Clifton. He had to make ends meet by driving a cab for the last 29 years of his life. He died on the job and in his cab in 1990. He did not live long enough to see either Knicks renamed their citizenship award after him in 2005 or his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014, 56 years after he last laced up his sneakers to place for an NBA team.
While he remained an optimistic man with a belief in the American Dream to the end—as evidenced by archival fortune of him near the end of his life that rolls alongside Sweetwater’s credits—his story was something akin to a tragedy. Unlike baseball, which quickly embraced Jackie Robinson’s historical significance and continues to trumpet it today, basketball left Clifton forgotten for years. Even today, he remains a relatively unknown element of basketball history.
Someone Forgot to Tell the Movie, Though
Unfortunately, Guigui either isn’t aware of the tragic elements of Clifton’s story. Or perhaps he simply would prefer not to engage with them. Yes, it does make references here and there. In his first game as a Knick, racism and bad officiating force Clifton to stop playing his version of basketball just to fit in. History suggests that suppression plagued him throughout his NBA career.
Earlier, we see Globetrotters coach Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak) sell Clifton’s contract to Knicks’ owner Ned Irish (Cary Elwes) for $10,000. Meanwhile, the player himself only gets $2,500 to play. The disparity should be easy to dramatize.
However, these are rapidly raised and forgotten. The overall tone is one of triumphalism. It seems to shrug, “Sure, Clifton never got paid what he was worth, had to dull his game to not freak out the traditionalists and racists, and died before nearly anyone acknowledged his legacy, but, hey, he did make it to the NBA!”
Something more along the lines of, “Yes, he made it to the NBA, but it cost him so much,” would better serve both the man and the history. Instead, the film is so quick to pat everyone on the back, save some racist refs, a bigoted coach, a gas station attendant, and some thugs who work for… the status quo, I guess? that it erases all the complexity and nuance.
The best example of this is the wraparound sequence which features a man (Jim Caviezel) getting into the now-aged Clifton’s cab. The film’s body is, evidently, Clifton relating his life to the man as he drives him to the airport. Caviezel plays their departure with deep reverence. However, knowing this is, at best, 24 years until the league will see fit to give Clifton credit for being groundbreaking makes it all feel like empty sentiment.
Filmmaking as Time Travel
What makes Sweetwater so especially strange is how Guigui has chosen to stage and direct his actors during the film’s largest section. The movie’s look feels akin to how a feature of the era might have looked. The lighting, the sets, and the staging are all reminiscent of films of the late 40s and early 50s. This is, at least, an intriguing idea. The movie never really gives the audience a thematic reason for it, but it is a good exercise in style.
However, the actors have also, seemingly, been directed to perform as though they are in a film made in the 1940s/50s. Only Osborne appears to have mostly slipped this impulse, turning in a naturalistic performance that does his true-life counterpart justice. However, even he wades into it some in the film’s climax, delivering a locker room speech marked by throwback overenunciation and stagy hand motions.
For some, the chance to deliver some throwback hammy-ness seems a delight. Elwes especially appears to be having the time of his life. It doesn’t make his performance good, per se, but it does make him a blast to watch. On the other hand, Jeremy Piven, as Knicks’ coach Joe Lapchick, keeps butting up against it. He’s at his best when he ditches it, as when he admonishes his son for uttering the “n-word” in their home. When forced to embrace the style, it fits Piven poorly. You can read the discomfort on his face and in his body language.
That’s how Sweetwater took a too-little-known compelling story of basketball in historical transition and hollowed it out. Too bizarrely stylistic to read as honest, too in love with the good things to acknowledge complexity. Sweetwater Clifton deserved better back in 1950, and his story deserves a better telling than this film now.
Sweetwater drives into theatres April 14.
Rating: 3.5/10 SPECS
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.