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‘Sweetwater’ a movie with a back story, visuals worth recognizing

The story of Nat Clifton breaking the NBA’s color barrier with the New York Knicks is finally told on the big screen

For every widely known pioneer and trailblazer who has made history as “the first African American to,” there have been countless more unsung figures with stories of impactful triumphs. Some of those stories remain little-known footnotes in history.

It’s well known that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when he made his Brooklyn Dodgers debut in April 1947, but how many of us know about Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton breaking the color barrier in the NBA three years later?

Briarcliff Entertainment’s Sweetwater aims to highlight the career and the legacy of the man who not only was the first African American player to sign a contract with the NBA but who also shaped how the game is played.

Directed and written by Martin Guigui and produced by Josi Konski, Sweetwater depicts the true story of the Basketball Hall of Famer’s journey to NBA history with the New York Knicks. Newcomer Everett Osborne stars as Clifton, the star of the famed Harlem Globetrotters, who under the guidance of owner and coach Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak) plays flashy and entertaining exhibition games around the country. Clifton’s flash and dominance catches the eye of New York Knicks executive Ned Irish (Cary Elwes) and head coach Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven), and inspired them to take the initiative to integrate their team and the league.

Cary Elwes (left) stars as Ned Irish and Everett Osborne (right) stars as Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton in writer/director Martin Guigui’s Sweetwater.

Tony Rivetti Jr. SMPSP/Briarcliff Entertainment

Soul in the game

The movie opens in 1990 Chicago with Sweetwater as a taxicab driver escorting a sportswriter on the way to O’Hare International Airport. He listens to the writer marvel over Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan’s 42-point game against the Detroit Pistons, before mentioning NBA star Julius Erving, New York City playground legend Connie Hawkins, and NBA star David Thompson as great players who came before Jordan. The sportswriter continues to pry and ask questions before the film flashes back to 1949 with Clifton and his Harlem Globetrotters taking on George Mikan and the world champion Minneapolis Lakers.

The Globetrotters and Lakers game sequence epitomized the contrast between play styles. As imagined, Mikan’s Lakers were very vanilla, slow-paced and mechanical in the way they played, while the Globetrotters played fast and with flair. The parallels between how the Globetrotters played and how the game is played today stand out and are emphasized throughout the film. In every Globetrotter scene, you could see elements of the way the NBA game is played today.

Stronger storyline

While Sweetwater is a solid biopic, there were missed opportunities by Guigui to strengthen the plot. For example, there was a flashback scene in which Clifton’s mother (Ashani Roberts) sent him to live with his father that didn’t explore what happened afterward. The film didn’t go in detail about how Clifton began playing basketball and how he became a Harlem Globetrotter. Including Clifton’s development and rise as a player would’ve provided more to the story.

Another opportunity squandered in strengthening the film is Clifton’s time with the Knicks. The dynamic between Clifton and his teammates wasn’t thoroughly explored. In the backdrop of integration in sports, the resistance to change is always a constant. Guigui didn’t illustrate how Sweetwater’s teammates received him. Showing the dynamic between Sweetwater and his teammates would have added more context, texture and authenticity to an already strong story.

Everett Osborne stars as Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton in Sweetwater.

Ian Fisher/Briarcliff Entertainment

Crisp visuals

The cinematography in Sweetwater is pretty impressive. What really stood out visually was how the game scenes were shot. The angles were tight to provide an intimate view of the action as if you were sitting courtside. Besides the sideline shots, the tight close-ups of the action in the half court also set an authentic tone.

The off-court shots in this film were well done, also. The way that the scenes appeared on screen were consistent and true to the time period, but those scenes did not appear dull or aged in any way. Granted, you could credit the cameras and postproduction but the ability to film and produce a period biopic with such bright and clear visuals is worth recognizing.

An ensemble cast against all odds

Sweetwater was supposed to be released years ago. Initial production was scheduled to begin in April 2007 with Henry Simmons slated to play Clifton, and Richard Dreyfuss to portray Saperstein. Rapper-actor Romeo Miller was also attached to the film to play a younger Clifton. Production was suspended until April 2009 due to the national recession.

When production resumed, Guigui had new partners to co-produce the film and a new cast. Mira Sorvino, Pollak, James Caan, and Smokey Robinson were all attached to this version of the project before another delay wiped out production.

Production resumed in 2014 with Wood Harris replacing Simmons in the leading role. Caan was slated to play Ned Irish while Brian Dennehy and Ludacris were at one point attached but ultimately did not participate in the film.

Dreyfuss and Pollak stayed attached to the project as NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff and Saperstein, respectively. Elwes and Robert Ri’chard were added as well. Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis and musician Gary Clark Jr. had cameos and Osborne had the leading role.

Osborne’s previous credits were one-episode spots on Chicago Fire and Tyler Perry’s Sistas. Despite being a relative newcomer, he held his own with a veteran cast. Game sequences were no problem for Osborne, since he played basketball in Australia for years. In other scenes, Osborne was even-keeled in his cadence and timing.

Sweetwater is an ambitious biopic that highlights one of the unsung pioneers in sports. This film was years in the making, but it turned out to be worth the wait.

Sweetwater premieres in theaters April 14.

Jannelle Moore is a contributor for Andscape. The Old Fort, North Carolina, native writes about the NBA for various outlets. Previously, she’s written game analysis and features about the Golden State Warriors for the San Jose Mercury News and the league at large for BasketballNews.com. She also writes about the Carolina Panthers for Carolina Blitz.