Review | ‘Sweetwater’: Clunky sports biopic has less grace than its subject

(2 stars)

As the first Black member of the New York Knicks, the title character of “Sweetwater” easily outshines his teammates. In the role of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Everett Osborne does the same to the veteran White actors who overplay the coaches and managers who marvel at Clifton’s talent. The graceful and mostly understated Osborne is the principal reason to watch this corny fictionalization of a turning point in American professional sports history.

The movie is framed by a post-fame vignette that’s just one of many clunky touches in writer-director Martin Guigui’s script. But the main story begins in 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball. At the time, Clifton was a star with the Harlem Globetrotters, the perpetually road-tripping exhibition basketball team. (Did the players ever make it home to Harlem? Actually, the team was formed in 1928 in Chicago but named after Harlem because it was considered the capital of African American culture.) The Trotters, as they’re known more familiarly, are shepherded and sheltered, but also economically exploited, by manager Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak, skipping the London-born Saperstein’s British accent).

In its early years, NBA blocked Black players

Clifton impresses Knicks coach Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven), who eventually persuades team owner Ned Irish (Cary Elwes) to sign the Trotter. But Lapchick, Irish and Clifton must then deal with such impediments as the other team owners, a hostile referee and a racist gas station owner whose moptop haircut is far from the movie’s only awkward anachronism.

“Sweetwater” focuses on its namesake, but Clifton was just one of three Black players who joined NBA teams at the same time in 1950. Also breaking the color line were Chuck Cooper with the Celtics and Earl Lloyd with the Washington Capitols. It was Lloyd who first appeared in a game as a Black NBA player, a preemption of Clifton’s breakthrough role that the movie blames on the machinations of NBA President Maurice Podoloff. (He’s played by Richard Dreyfuss, who was originally cast as Saperstein when Guigui first tried to shoot this movie 16 years ago.)

Honoring the conventions of the sports flick, the director builds to a climactic account of Clifton’s first game with the Knicks. (Does it end with our hero’s last-second game-winning shot? Let’s just say that’s a possibility.) “Sweetwater” also offers snippets of several Trotters games, which are less competitions than highly athletic vaudeville routines. Osborne acquits himself well on the court, demonstrating skills he learned while playing basketball in college and professionally in Australia.

Yet Guigui still finds himself with something less than a feature film. So he pads the tale with a bleached-out childhood flashback, numerous portentous close-ups of Clifton’s famously big hands and several visits to music clubs. There the basketball prodigy becomes friends with performers played by jazz-pop vocalist Emmaline and blues singer-guitarist Gary Clark Jr. These musical asides don’t add a thing to the story, but they do call attention to the score, credited to Jeff Cardoni and the director, that’s among the movie’s more convincing aspects.

Inserted clumsily here and there are remarks and incidents that speak to Guigui’s broader concern: how the Globetrotters and their manager transformed basketball. (Saperstein even invented the three-pointer.) But rather than take a thematic approach that would have permitted more attention to that aspect of the tale, the director steadfastly follows the biopic format. The result is competent and informative, but lacks swagger and elegance. “Sweetwater” is no three-pointer.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some racial slurs, violence and smoking. 114 minutes.

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