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"SWEETWATER"
(2023) (Everett Osborne, Jeremy Piven) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A talented basketball player of the late 1940s hopes to become the first African-American to join an NBA team.
PLOT:

It's 1949 and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton (EVERETT OSBORNE) is a WWII army vet and current member of the Harlem Globetrotters. Despite having just defeated the current NBA champs, Sweetwater and the rest of his all-black team have no chance of being added to the NBA -- run by Maurice Podoloff (RICHARD DREYFUSS) - which also holds true for a current all-white team adding one of them to their roster.

Hoping to change that is New York Knickerbockers head coach Joe Lapchick (JEREMY PIVEN) who convinces team owner Ned Irish (CARY ELWES) to defy a recent owners' vote not to allow black players into the league and set their sights on Sweetwater. But the Globetrotters' white owner, Abe Saperstein (KEVIN POLLAK), who makes money by arranging fixed games with small-town white teams, wants no part of that.

With Joe and Ned not giving up, and Sweetwater hoping to change both how the game looks and is played, he spends his off-time getting to know white blues singer Jeanne Staples (EMMALINE), all while dealing with various forms of racism.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

I'll readily admit that when it comes to all things related to the Harlem Globetrotters, my knowledge of any specifics is fairly limited. That said, I like to imagine that I saw them in their heyday, back in the 1970s somewhere in Richmond, VA when they featured the likes of Marques Haynes, Meadowlark Lemon, and Fred "Curly" Neal, likely playing their usual opponent, the Washington Generals.

While I was amazed as a kid watching their basketball prowess and sleight of hand gimmickry, as an adult I'm now surprised to learn that none other than Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain played for them in the late 1950s and even earlier than that, one of their players helped integrate the NBA. The story of that part of Nat Clifton's life now arrives in "Sweetwater," directly named for his nickname that apparently stemmed from his taste for sugar-flavored agua.

Many are familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson similarly integrating major league baseball back in 1947 when he started as the Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman and became the first athlete to break the color barrier in any major U.S. sport of the modern era. I must say that before watching this film, I couldn't name the others in football, hockey, or basketball, but at least now I know the name for the latter.

As directed by Martin Guigui from his own screenplay, the film has brief bookends set in 1990 when an older black cabbie informs a much younger fare -- while listening to a Bulls game featuring Michael Jordan -- that a player decades earlier was "just like Mike."

And thus, our story rewinds to 1949 when Sweetwater (Everett Osborne) is playing for the Globetrotters owned and run by wheeler-dealer Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak) who routinely pays his victorious black players less than their white opponents who've been "reimbursed" to lose.

That doesn't sit well with Sweetwater who's drawn the eye of Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven) who'd like the talented ball player to join the New York Knickerbockers who he coaches. He eventually convinces their owner, Ned Irish (Cary Elwes), to join forces and buck the "no coloreds in our league" majority of other owners and go after Nat to both better their team and the league in general. To no one's surprise, that doesn't go over well in an era when racism still pervaded almost every nook and cranny of our country.

While the film occasionally gives off the vibe of not quite being polished to usual Hollywood standards -- especially some of the dialogue that comes off as stilted and too "on the nose" -- the offering otherwise decently portrays the story of perseverance and change in a time of inequality and injustice.

The performances are generally okay (with some "why are they here" cameos by the likes of Eric Roberts and Jim Caviezel). Yet, while I have no idea if the portrayal of the title character is one hundred percent accurate, I was hoping for something a little more electric and magnetic regarding our main subject. You know, like the late, great Chadwick Boseman brought to his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in "42."

Although not as eye-popping and slack-jawed entertaining as the Globetrotters were to a certain young lad's eyes way back when, "Sweetwater" is decent enough in telling the important story of one of their own to warrant a 5 out of 10 rating.




Posted April 14, 2023


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