This b-ball, biofilm dribbles but can’t shoot. The direction, acting, script and tech team are all in play, but nothing scores.
Part of the problem is its subject. OG b-baller Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was a pioneer. His achievements are worth retelling, but a bit murky. Technically, he was the first African American to sign an NBA contract, and on November 4th, 1950, he played his inaugural game with the New York Knicks. However, Earl Lloyd of the Washington Capitols was the first Black man to play in an NBA game, which happened on October 31st, 1950. And, Chuck Cooper, of the Boston Celtics, was the first Black player to be drafted, and his first game was on November 1st, 1950. So, Sweetwater’s place in history is a bit crowded.
In the 1940s, 26- year-old Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (Everett Osborne) plays forward for the iconic Harlem Globetrotters, an exhibition basketball team whose roots date back to 1926. In the late ’40s, manager Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak, A Few Good Men) guides the Globetrotters as they compete against famous all-white b-ball teams—and beat ’em.
Sweetwater, a trickster on the court, gets scouted by New York Knickerbockers coach Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven, Entourage), who talks the Knicks’ president (Cary Elwes) into buying out Sweetwater’s contract. Saperstein is paid $12,500, and pockets $10K. Sweetwater only gets $2.5K. Behind the scenes at the National Basketball Association, owners debate Black players integrating the NBA. The Association’s president, Maurice Podoloff (Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws), is skeptical until he isn’t: “Change is happening, but I don’t know if my city can take it.” A lot is riding on Sweetwater’s NBA debut. The rest is history.
Beginning scenes display the film’s only imaginative moments. A sportswriter (Jim Caviezal) rides in a cab in Chicago and engages in conversation with the elderly driver, who recounts his glory days in the NBA. It’s Sweetwater. That’s what happened to the champ who led the Knicks to the NBA finals and was on the 1957 NBA All-Star Team. No pension. No plush retirement. Driving a taxi to make a living. The former pro baller’s poignant recollections anchor the film. It’s a nice touch.
The script by writer/director Martin Guigui truncates Sweetwater’s life. Very little of his pre- or post- basketball career is depicted. The dehumanizing experiences an all-black basketball team faces touring America in the height of segregation are on view, but seem generic. Turned away from hotels, harassed in white restaurants. It’s all there, but surface deep. The Globetrotters aren’t written as three-dimensional characters. Their banter seems stilted. Not like the conversations and language one would expect from urban Black athletes who work and live together like family. The script does a slightly better job depicting the back-room behavior and talking points of the NBA board and its prejudices.
Guigui’s direction is proficient, nothing more. Not artful, innovative or capable of creating that exhilarating spirit sport movies require. The footage lacks umph. Scenes seem staged, not organic and the camerawork (Massimo Zeri), particularly during the basketball games, is never immersive. If Michael B. Jordan could reimagine the way boxing matches are shot in Creed III, this film could have done the same for basketball.
Hallways leading from NBA courts look like they were shot in office building basements (production design Jack G. Taylor Jr., Mystic River). Clothes look appropriate, but not impressive (Tiffany Hasbourne, Hustle). The standard-issue musical score (Jeff Cardoni and Guigui) and the film’s low budget contribute to an old-fashion, lackluster made-for-TV-movie feel that seems dated.
In real life, Sweetwater was six 6’8”. Everett Osborne, a former pro ball player in Australia, is 6’4”—almost that tall and he knows the game. His acting skills are decent, but not on par with that of Boseman in 42 or Jordan in Creed—they powered their movies to success. A different type of directing might have pulled a more galvanizing performance out of Osborne. Piven, Dreyfuss, Pollak and Elwes, all acting pros, are more convincing, but even they seem out of sorts. Like they’re performing without a net.
The Michael Jordan-based movie Air has very little footage of live basketball games yet found a way to get its audiences pumped up. This movie had far more potential for exciting movie fans but doesn’t.