In 1950, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, became the first black man to sign a contract in the NBA, breaking the longstanding color barrier and forever changing the game of basketball.
Despite his undeniable impact on sports, Clifton’s story — and the pivotal role his faith played in his life and career — has remained relatively obscure. But “Sweetwater,” a new film starring Everett Osborne, Jim Caviezel, Jeremy Pivens and Richard Dreyfuss, brings his story to life like never before.
“Everyone knew Jackie Robinson, but no one knew Sweetwater,” producer Darren Moorman told The Christian Post. “We figured now was the time to tell his story.”
Directed and written by Martin Guigui, “Sweetwater” follows the true story of the Basketball Hall of Famer’s journey to making NBA history with the New York Knicks. Osborne stars as Clifton, the star of the Harlem Globetrotters, who under the watchful eye of owner and coach Abe Saperstein (Kevin Pollak) plays exhibition games around the country, making $10,000.
Clifton’s talent and flashy playing style catches the eye of New York Knicks executive Ned Irish (Cary Elwes) and head coach Joe Lapchick (Jeremy Piven). In 1950, the Globetrotters sold Clifton’s contract for $12,500 to the Knicks, making Clifton the first African American to ever have an NBA contract.
A memorable scene at Madison Square in 1949 sets the tone for the film, a face-off between the Globetrotters and the NBA champions, the Minnesota Lakers. The Globetrotters’ victory solidifies their prowess, yet racial barriers prevent them from true recognition within the NBA.
“Playing basketball in 2023 is totally different from playing in 1950 and totally different from growing up in the ’20s and ’30s like Sweetwater and playing during that time,” Osborne, a former professional basketball player, said.
“I had to truly step into a new world and absorb how Sweetwater played. He was innovative, he used his circumstances and his surroundings to be creative and to create something that was unknown and so fun and a game the industry had never seen before. It was magical to see what he did, how he did it collectively, and how change happened.”
Through a series of flashbacks, viewers see the challenges Clifton overcame to succeed. Born in 1922 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Clifton was raised in poverty; he picks so much cotton with his sharecropping parents that his hands bleed. He faces incessant racism; in one scene, a bigoted gas station owner attempts to frighten the black Globetrotters away from his gas station by waving a shotgun. He also witnessed the horrors of war; he served with the United States Army for three years and fought in Europe during World War II.
The film unearths racial tensions of its era, delving into the challenges Sweetwater and basketball administrations faced in pushing the boundaries of change. Both Moorman and Osborne emphasized the importance of recognizing the sacrifices and risks taken during those times to pave the way for positive change.
“Sweetwater fought for his country,” Moorman said. “That became a couple of powerful moments in the film, where this [basketball] administration recognized what he had put himself at risk for, and I think it really was a way to make them feel like, ‘Oh my, we should do the right thing here.’”
The film also touches on how Clifton’s faith helped him persevere despite challenges. In one scene, his mother is shown instilling in him a sense of God-given worth: “You were made for a higher purpose,” she said.
Osborne, a Christian himself, told CP, “Whether you play sports or not, I think there is a divine purpose and God built us for something greater than what we’re doing, some higher purpose.
“Sweetwater was infused with that at a young age and through the obstacles that he was faced with, from fighting in the war and coming back and being marginalized … because he was infused with faith from before and having a higher purpose, those things didn’t stop him because of the deeper truths that he had within him. He was curious enough to find that, take that journey and explore with faith the unknown, believing what he can’t see, and keeping that higher truth in his mind. You take that journey, and see it open up and become something magical and legendary.”
Moorman shared how this faith-based approach not only enhanced the film’s message but also fostered a unique bond between him and Osborne. The producer revealed he shared his prayer journey for the film with Osborne, something he said solidified their shared belief and vision for the project.
“[I told him], ‘Hey, my process has been praying for you,’” Moorman said. “It just was a powerful moment where I knew he was a man of faith. We got to walk over to set and I got to pray over him. God just used him in a huge way just to guide this film. Although he’s a rookie, he led the movie like a real pro.”
“Darren specifically mentioned prayer, and that kind of set the overarching tone in my spirit,” Osborne agreed. “And I was able to lead that way throughout the whole film.”
Since the film’s release in April — it’s currently available on streaming — Osborne said he’s heard from countless individuals who have thanked him for honoring the history-making athlete who indelible mark on the history of basketball.
“It’s just not a black story, it’s a human story,” he said. “I’ve had a whole range of ages and demographics reach out to me and say, ‘Thank you for telling the story. You guys did wonderful … I didn’t even know who this character was. Thank you for bringing awareness.’”
“The truth is, you can’t bring a whole [story to] life in an hour and 15 minutes; you can only inform, you can only entertain in a beautiful way, which is what we did.”
“Sweetwater” is rated PG-13.
Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: email@example.com
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