Political Film Review #675


In 1990, a man by the name of Nathaniel Clifton (played at age 78 by Everett Osborne) is driving a Chicago taxi. After his rider asks to increase the volume of an ongoing basketball game, a discussion begins, and the driver reveals that he once played a role in the sport. But the film then shifts to about the year 1930, when Clinton was a boy in rural Arkansas, saying goodbye to his mother as he is taken by his father to live in Chicago.

 Because Nat likes to drink a glass of water with two squirts of soft drink, at some point his nickname becomes “Sweetwater,” a term also matching his personality. As he grows to the height of 6’8” while a teenager, he excels at basketball. After graduating from high school, he enrolls in Xavier University in New Orleans until Pearl Harbor. After serving in an all-Black unit in Europe during World War II, he seeks a career in basketball, then an all-White sport. He first joins the all-Black New York Rens, and in 1948 he becomes the star of the Harlem Globetrotters. Organized by Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak), the Trotters play a form of basketball that not only outscores competitors but also offers entertainment on the court resembling ballet. During 1949, the Globetrotters defeat the world champion Minnesota Lakers, prompting a scout from the New York Knickerbockers, Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven), to consider hiring Sweetwater into the major league basketball as the first African American to break through the color barrier. (Jackie Robinson had done so in baseball during 1947, when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.) He eventually persuades the team’s owner, Ned Irish (Cary Elwes), to do so.

 Racism, thanks to writer/director Martin Guigui, is the focus of the film, with the terms Negro and boy repeated several times. While on the road in upstate New York, the Trotters cannot sleep at hotels and instead doze off on their bus. When the bus runs out of gas, a gas station owner will not allow them to buy gas, so they must push the bus to their destination. An all-White amateur team is paid more than the Trotters after a game that they easily win. Sweetwater cannot be seated in a restaurant until one day he breaks the sign containing the rule. He attracts the attention of a White singer, Emmeline (Jeanne Staples), but is assaulted when he leaves by the back door. Whites at a meeting of the National Basketball Association refuse to allow a Black to play in the league but later relent. After Sweetwater is hired by the New York Knickerbockers, an umpire rules in his first game that he has violated four nonexistent rules, though another umpire evidently warns him that a fifth foul call will remove Sweetwater from membership in the League.

The incidents are supposed to be reminders of a bygone age, and some blues music inhabits a couple of scenes. But during the week that the film debuts, news covers two African American legislators who have been expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives, a 14-year-old Black kid is shot for ringing a doorbell, and several mass shootings erupt around the country.

 When the film ends, the taxi rider realizes that he has been conversing with Sweetwater, who became a taxi driver after 9 seasons in the National Basketball League. A title at the end indicates that Sweetwater died in 1990.

 As a film depicting the struggle of African Americans before the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sweetwater has been nominated as best exposé and best film on human rights of 2023.  MH                    

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