Not researching much about Nat Sweetwater Clifton and his heroics before watching the movie was a conscious decision I made, as I wanted to have a better movie experience without knowing what happens at the end. The challenge about adapting a true story of any kind to the big screen is making it exciting enough for the audience to sit through the journey despite being aware of the ending. And the thing that is an absolute necessity for that is innovative, razor-sharp, Sorkin-esque writing.
Of course, the sports biopic sub-genre has the advantage of dazzling the viewer with grand, triumphant moments, which always work out if they are properly designed with ample cinematic value. The Sweetwater biopic, which goes by the same name, has plenty of such moments that work in its favor. In fact, the basketball part of the movie looks very realistic and not at all artificial. Where the movie falls flat is in the lack of a script with a certain edginess, which makes the two-hour run-time go by in a jiffy. It is not exactly a bad movie by any means. In fact, I could see the earnestness in presenting the life of the man and his fascinating journey in vivid detail. But for a person like Nat Clifton, who was particularly famous for his unique style, his biopic not having any razzmatazz whatsoever is something that makes me really sad.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘Sweetwater’?
The very nineties-style filmmaking is something that I initially found very off-putting, but once I made my peace with that, I could invest myself in what was going on. Not visiting Google before watching came in handy here as well.
The movie’s decision to start the proceedings with Harlem Globetrotters beating NBA title-holder Minneapolis Lakers and showcasing the showmanship of our main man is something I really liked, instead of a lengthy, childhood-exploring backstory. The Trotters are where the legacy of Sweetwater Clifton starts. The all-black exhibition basketball team, founded and coached by Abe Saperstein, is a rage among the American public, and the top draw of the spectacle is none other than Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. But the NBA gate is not open for them because of their skin color. Not all authority figures in the top-tier basketball league are racists, though; two of them are the duo of Joe Lapchick and Ned Irish, coach and owner of the New York Knicks. Lapchick especially wants to draft Sweetwater into the team, which would break the norm.
While the Trotters tour all over America with all their dazzling glory, more often than not, they find themselves in situations where they get harassed thanks to the inhumanity of white men. Meanwhile, Lapchick and Irish get closer to achieve their goal of bringing Sweetwater to the Knicks. Although Abe turns out to be an obstacle initially for obvious reasons, the prospect of a colored man playing in the NBA is too big for him to ignore because, at the core of his being, he is a good man after all.
How Did Sweetwater Clifton Make History?
The movie does pretty well when it comes to exploring racial discrimination in sports. What seems absolutely ludicrous in our day and age was actually a normal thing back then. Even I find it hard to believe that people who sit at the administration table of America’s biggest sports league give more importance to the color of their skin than the skill of an athlete, but the world is never a fair place, and back then, it was even worse. Irish moves several mountains to get the racially blind other team owners in line and to finally get the approval of NBA president Maurice “Mo” Podoloff, an old man aware of the rights and wrongs of the world. I liked how the character of Mo tried to maintain harmony in such a chaotic situation.
Another aspect where the movie wins for me is properly acknowledging that Sweetwater was not the only one; there were two other black players who also got drafted into NBA teams. Of course, the credit for that goes to Ned Irish, whom I googled, finding that the man was indeed as great as the movie portrays him.
Like all generic sports-based movies that offer one big showdown piece in their final act, this movie gives you its big finale, and it is obviously Sweetwater’s first game in a New York Knicks’ Jersey. As good things never come easy, Sweetwater finds it really difficult to blend in. His unique style, yielding the kind of play that the referees are not familiar with, lands him in murky water, where he receives three fouls very quickly. This prompts Lapchick to take Sweetwater away for the rest of the first half, which further damages the icon’s mojo. But you can’t possibly contain a storm like Sweetwater, no matter what, which is exactly what happens in the second half when he mixes up his own style with a conventional by-the-book formula, resulting in the NY Knicks starting the season with a historic win. And most essentially, the start of a new legacy: Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton.
Sweetwater goes on to become an NBA legend and gets a place in the All-Star Game. Post-retirement, he spends his days driving a taxicab. The very first scene of the movie is, in fact, an older Sweetwater taking on a new passenger—a sports writer played by Jim Caviezel, whom I was really happy to see after ages. The two of them strike up a conversation regarding the game, and we get the whole movie in flashback. This is a very common movie structure that was obviously extensively used in the nineties.
The thing is, had I not watched this movie, I probably wouldn’t have known Sweetwater’s name, considering the fact that I am no basketball enthusiast. From that perspective, I appreciate that a bunch of people decided to take the responsibility of letting people know the name and make a movie out of it. But taking on a true story is a huge responsibility because you have to represent it right on the screen. And all you need to do for that is make a really exciting movie, which this movie failed to do despite having a genuinely heroic story in hand. Sweetwater will always be remembered, but this movie will eventually fade away because it just couldn’t reach the height of greatness.