I received a free digital screening in exchange for this honest review.
SWEETWATER is a biographical sports film released by Briarcliff Entertainment. It stars Everett Osborne, Cary Elwes, Jeremy Piven, with Richard Dreyfuss and Kevin Pollock, and it was written and directed by Martin Guigui. Released as a feature film, the biopic is now available on multiple streaming platforms. It’s rated PG-13. SWEETWATER is based on Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, the first Black man to be signed to an NBA contract.
SWEETWATER begins with a sports reporter in a Chicago taxi talking to the cabbie. The cabbie is Nat Clifton, and he begins sharing the story of how integration began in basketball. In one flashback scene, a young Sweetwater is seen handling cotton in Arkansas before moving to Chicago. His mother gives him a glass of water and puts some sugar in it, telling him “…little bit of sugar makes the water taste so much sweeter.” She also tells him his name is changing from Clifton Nathaniel to Nathaniel Clifton. A little later in the movie Nat is seen asking for water and sugar packets in a restaurant. It alludes to this as how he acquired his nickname. His character also states that he likes free throws because they’re “free.”
Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton is the star player on the Harlem Globetrotters. As an astute player, he sees the discrepancy in pay the Black players are receiving compared to the teams they play wherever they go. The Globetrotters win and earn so much less than the other teams. Many times, the Trotters’ players are sleeping on the bus or not allowed into restaurants because of Jim Crow laws, prejudice, or other microaggressions.
The New York Knickerbockers are interested in recruiting him—they state there was no actual rule in the NBA against Black players per the NBA Commissioner—and they felt the fans would accept him because he’s a US Veteran. The backroom politics between the different league officials argue over whether or not they can do it, the risk, and whether the public would accept it.
After the Globetrotters defeated the NBA Champions, Minneapolis Lakers, they were able to appeal to bigger audiences worldwide, though they still traveled all over rural America. This also made the players more relevant in the basketball world. The owner-coach optimistically thought the Globetrotters might eventually become an NBA team. When talking to Nat, Ned Irish and Joe Lapchick of the Knickerbockers tried to assure him they could recruit him, but Nat wasn’t convinced. The Knickerbockers wanted him in spite of the bias against Black players joining the NBA.
Sweetwater continued to play for the Globetrotters, and Irish and Lapchick offered the Globetrotter owner-coach $5000 for his contract. Finally, when they offered $10,000, the team owner-coach agreed and stipulated that Sweetwater should get an additional $2500 to get settled with the team. This made Clifton the first Black man to break the color barrier by signing an NBA contract. Per the movie, he asked to be paid in cash because of the bias against Blacks having access to checks and banks.
In the movie, there appeared to be further bias by referee officials against Sweetwater and his basketball style of playing, bad calls and fouls, but in the end, the team still wins with the help of Sweetwater, and he receives a standing ovation as a Knickerbocker in Madison Square Gardens.
SWEETWATER is a heartfelt movie showing the talent of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and his journey from the Globetrotters to the integration of the NBA with his signed Knickerbockers’ contract. While not a deep dive into the history of integration, it is an authentic movie in that it shows the truth of what he had to endure to get there, the discrimination and threats he faced, racism, and more. At heart, it is a satisfying and inspiring basketball movie, but more than that, SWEETWATER is a feel-good story of the man who made an historic impact on the sport.
Sweetwater was released in theaters on April 14, 2023 and is currently available to buy or rent online from Amazon and other digital movie providers.