The incredible importance of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball is almost too massive to measure. His place in history should never be forgotten but Robinson was not alone in changing the world.
The new feature film “Sweetwater” shows how three black basketball players – focusing mainly on former Harlem Globetrotter Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton – made history in the late 1940s by breaking the color barrier in the National Basketball Association. Their story has not been as widely told as the one with Robinson.
Martin Guigui, the writer/director of “Sweetwater,” offers a look at a pivotal point in NBA history. The league was made up of all white players who played a very flat-footed game. The best black players were barnstorming the country as The Harlem Globetrotters. Clifton (Everett Osborne) was by far the best of the touring group with his dazzling skills.
New York Knicks Coach Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven) saw Sweetwater as the man who could integrate the professional basketball world the way Jackie Robinson changed professional baseball. The only problem was Lapchick had to convince his boss, Knicks owner Ned Irish (Cary Elwes) and the rest of the owners of teams in the NBA that change would be beneficial for the league.
Guigui manages to hit the major points of the story when it comes to the negotiations to land Clifton on the NBA team. This is highlighted by a solid performance by Kevin Pollak as the shrewd businessman running the Globetrotters.
There also are some interesting conversations in the boardroom as the owners are divided about making such a dramatic change. The conversations are heated but come across a little tempered as if to make sure the movie got a PG-13 rating.
Guigui also had to deal with the kind of limited budget that comes with making a movie for a smaller movie company. The set used for the Madison Square Garden scenes looks more like a gymnasium for a junior high school than the massive home for sports in New York. It meant less extras were needed but takes away from how big this moment was when it came to the reaction from the fans.
“Sweetwater” brushes against social issues but the writer was more content to shift focus to the basketball scenes. The direction robbed the movie of what could have been some very powerful moments.
Because so much attention is put on the basketball play, the biggest challenge for Guigui was to find an actor who would look comfortable on the basketball court. Without some cage skills, many of the movie’s biggest action moments would have had to be faked.
Osborne was able to handle both parts of the job with great skill including some impressive dunks. His on-court work is so good because Osborne played basketball in college and then became a professional basketball player in Australia. The scenes on the court have a flow that would have been choppy had a stand-in player had to be used.
The film’s star shows the same level of comfort when dealing with the pain, frustration, disappointment and hope that Clifton faced during his life. Osborne found the right level of rage and anger to make it clear what he is feeling while also controlling the performance enough a large audience can sympathize with him.
To make sure Osborne’s performance is the best it can be, Guigui filled the movie with strong veteran actors such as Kevin Pollack, Cary Elwes, Richard Dreyfess, Jeremy Piven and Eric Roberts. The sequence with Roberts is short but is one of the tensest in the production. Having him in the scene with Osborne made it stronger.
“Sweetwater” has its problems but the main thing to keep in mind is that it turns a spotlight on a bit of history that should not be overlooked or forgotten. This is definitely a case where having a strong message as the destination is more important than the journey.
The feature film opens in theaters April 14.
Cast: Everett Osborne, Kevin Pollack, Cary Elwes, Richard Dreyfess, Jeremy Piven and Eric Roberts.
Director: Martin Guigui
Rated: PG-13 for smoking, violence, racial slurs
Running time: 114 minutes.