Review: ‘Sweetwater’ (2023), starring Everett Osborne, Cary Elwes, Jeremy Piven, Richard Dreyfuss and Kevin Pollak

April 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jeremy Piven, Cary Elwes and Everett Osborne in “Sweetwater” (Photo by Tony Rivetti Jr. SMPSP/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Sweetwater” (2023)

Directed by Martin Guigui

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, mostly in 1949 and 1950, the dramatic film “Sweetwater” (based on true events) features an African American and white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton experiences racism and other obstacles on his way to becoming one of the first African American basketball players in the National Basketball Association. 

Culture Audience: “Sweetwater” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of basketball and sports biopics, but viewers should not expect an engaging or realistic-looking story in “Sweetwater.”

Everett Osborne in “Sweetwater” (Photo by Ian Fisher/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Sweetwater” could have been an inspirational biopic about a groundbreaking basketball player. Instead, the movie is a stale cesspool of awful dialogue, corny scenarios and problematic racial condescension that depicts greedy basketball racists as heroes. People who don’t know anything about Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton (the second African American basketball player to play in the National Basketball Association) before seeing this sorry excuse for a biopic won’t learn much about him from the shallow way that he is presented in this film.

For starters, “Sweetwater” inaccurately depicts him as the first African American to play in the NBA, when in fact that achievement was accomplished that same year (1950) by Earl Lloyd, who was a player with the Washington Capitols. Harold Hunter of the Washington Capitols (who was cut from the team before ever playing in the NBA) and Clifton both signed contracts with the NBA in 1950, but there have been historical disputes over whether Hunter or Clifton should get credit as the first African American to sign a player contract with the NBA. In 1990, Clifton died in relative obscurity in Chicago. He was 67. In the last years of his life, Clifton was working as a taxi driver. Just like the business people who exploited Clifton in real life, the “Sweetwater” movie uses him as a pawn to make money off of his talent, and to present a self-congratulatory image of looking racially progressive.

“Sweetwater” (written and directed by Martin Guigui) doesn’t care about portraying Clifton as a whole person in this movie, because he is mainly presented in the context of what white people wanted to get from Sweetwater (played by Everett Osborne) as a commodity. (For the purposes of this review, the real Clifton is referred to as Clifton, while the movie’s Sweetwater character is referred to as Sweetwater.) The “Sweetwater” movie barely shows anything about Sweetwater’s loved ones in the African American community. The movie also doesn’t care to give much importance to his inner thoughts and feelings.

The closest that the movie shows of Sweetwater’s family background and connection to his family are a few, very brief flashback scenes that last for a combined total of less than 10 minutes of this 114-minute movie. In one scene, his mother (played by Ashani Roberts) gives 7-year-old Sweetwater (played by Ca’Ron Jaden Coleman) some sugar water, which was her way of cheering him up, and it became his favorite drink as a child in Arkansas. (Hence, the nickname Sweetwater.)

In another scene, Sweetwater is shown mournfully saying goodbye to his mother because his father Joe Nathaniel (played by Clifton Nathaniel) had decided to relocate with Sweetwater to Chicago, in search of better job opportunities in Jim Crow-plagued America. It’s in this scene that his mother says that Sweetwater needs to change his name from Clifton Nathaniel (which was his birth name) to his new name of Nathaniel Clifton. The movie gives no explanation for why his mother told Sweetwater to reverse his first and last names.

And (cringe alert) the movie makes a point of having a closeup of the cotton being picked in the field by Sweetwater and his father before they move away from Arkansas. The palms of Sweetwater’s hands have small cuts from the cotton thorns, so his mother gives him some sugar water, to help him with his discomfort. As a child, Sweetwater stares at the palms of his hands when he gets these cotton thorn cuts. And several times in the film, when Sweetwater is an adult, he stares at the palms of his hands in the same way, as if he’s remembering that he literally used to be a cotton-picking kid. It’s filmmaking that goes beyond being trite and plummets right into the depths of being racially tone-deaf.

Viewers of “Sweetwater” never get to see vivid details about what inspired him to start playing basketball and who were his earliest coaches. Instead, the movie erases that part of his life to focus on showing how white people in the basketball industry “discovered” Sweetwater and “rescued” him from a life of poverty. In other words, they wanted a piece of him so they could make money for themselves and get credit for being “visionaries.”

This “rescuing” part of the movie is shown almost immediately. The first scene of Sweetwater playing basketball is when he’s a 27-year-old underpaid player with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1949. At the time, professional basketball in the United States was segregated by race. Only white players were allowed in the NBA. And needless to say, the white basketball players, even the semi-pros, were making a lot more money than professional basketball players who weren’t white.

After a mock championship game where the Globetrotters defeated the Minneapolis Lakers (an all-white team), Sweetwater is approached by New York Knickerbockers coach Joe Lapchick (played by Jeremy Piven), who tells Sweetwater that he wants Sweetwater to play for the Knickbockers. (The Knickerbockers would later shorten their name to the Knicks.) Sweetwater, like most of the characters in the movie, thinks it’s impossible for anyone who isn’t white to play in the NBA.

But Joe, who is presented as a crusading “hero,” is determined to prove all the naysayers wrong. “I think you can help make the change,” Joe tells Sweetwater about breaking racial barriers at the NBA, even though throughout the movie, Joe wants to take all the credit for making the change. “You can be the first,” Joe adds, even though the movie wants to forget all about Lloyd of the Washington Capitols.

Joe attends a meeting with the NBA board of directors (who are all white men) and gets a mixed-to-negative reaction when Joe brings up the idea of recruiting Sweetwater for the Knickerbockers. Some of the board members support the idea, but they are outvoted by a majority who want to keep the NBA an all-white group. New York Knickerbockers owner Ned Irish (played by Cary Elwes) is one of the most adamant opponents to racial integration of the NBA, and he makes racist comments to prove it. NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is open to the idea of racial integration of the NBA, but he will only go with what the majority of the NBA board wants.

One of the worst scenes in the movie is when Joe’s wife (played by Dahlia Waingort Guigui), gives a pep talk to Joe when he thinks he’s failing to convince the necessary people to let Sweetwater join the NBA via the Knickerbockers. Joe keeps rambling about the wall of racism that Sweetwater can’t break through in order to get in the NBA. Joe mentions this “wall” several times in the movie.

Joe’s wife tells him, as if he’s pioneering civil rights activist: “You are Joe Lapchick! You don’t need to break through a wall. You just go get Sweetwater and you climb over that wall with him!” If slogan T-shirts were popular during this time period, then Joe and his wife would be wearing T-shirts that say, “We Are White Saviors.”

Meanwhile, Harlem Globetrotters coach/manager Abe Saperstein (played by Kevin Pollak) has put the Harlem Globetrotters on the basketball equivalent of the “chitlin circuit.” The overworked Globetrotters go on grueling tours to entertain audiences of different races. But because of racial segregation laws, the Globetrotters are treated like second-class citizens and denied entry or service at “whites only” places. The Globetrotters are paid a pittance, while Abe keeps much of the Globetrotters’ earnings for himself.

At times, “Sweetwater” tries to make it look like Abe is an ally to these black Globetrotters whom he is exploiting. When the Globetrotters are denied lodging at a hotel that has an unofficial “whites only” policy, the front desk clerk defensively says, “I don’t make the rules.” Abe puts on a big show of indignation and replies, “Yeah, like Nuremberg,” in reference to the excuse that Nazi officials made while on trial for World War II crimes in Nuremberg, Germany.

But Abe’s “outrage” about racism is really fake allyship. In a later scene on a tour bus, Sweetwater is the first person on the team to openly question Abe about the low payments for the Globetrotters (who win most of their games), compared to the white people (including Abe) who get considerably more money for being involved the same basketball games. When Sweetwater points out this inequality, Abe angrily snaps at him: “I’m the reason this team exists! … Just stick to playing basketball!”

And not long after Abe figures out that Sweetwater is questioning Abe’s exploitative business practices, Abe sells off Sweetwater like cattle to New York Knickerbockers owner Ned. Even though Ned is blatantly racist, he’s changed his mind about Sweetwater joining the team when Ned finally admits (after much pestering from Joe) that Sweetwater can help the team win games and sell more tickets. In other words, it all comes back to not really caring about the racial inequality that Sweetwater and other black basketball players experience. It’s about making more money for the white men in power positions, who want the money and the bragging rights about how “visionary” they are.

Most of the acting in “Sweetwater” is terribly unconvincing. Osborne’s performance is very stiff. Piven hams it up too much. Elwes acts like a robotic wax dummy. Pollak tries to be comedic, but it comes across as annoying. Dreyfuss looks emotionally disconnected, like he just signed up to be in this movie for the paycheck. Eric Roberts has a useless cameo as a racist gas station owner named Judd. Jim Caviezel has a very hokey cameo in the movie, as a sports journalist who meets Sweetwater in 1990, by being a passenger in Sweetwater’s taxi.

The movie’s dialogue is mind-numbingly horrible. Joe treats Sweetwater more like a freakishly tall money-making machine than as a human being. Early in the movie, Joe smugly comments that the size of Sweetwater’s hands “makes the [basket]ball look like a grapefruit.” Two radio announcers named Howard (played by Frank Buckley) and Marty (played by Todd Ant) at the Knickbockers basketball games give exposition-heavy play-by-plays about what was already shown in a scene, as if viewers are complete idiots and don’t understand what was already shown a few seconds earlier.

Forget about seeing anything in the movie about any friendships that Sweetwater might have developed with any of his fellow basketball players on any team. None of that meaningful camaraderie is in this dreadful biopic, which makes almost all the other basketball players nameless and generic. The basketball playing scenes in “Sweetwater” are disappointingly predictable and mostly dull. The movie reduces and downplays the racist blackash that Sweetwater got in real life after joining the NBA and instead makes it look like the worst thing that happened to him was a racist referee singling him out for unfair foul penalties.

The closest thing that the movie shows to what Sweetwater is like outside of basketball is when he begins courting a white singer named Jeanne Staples (played by Emmaline), whom he immediately asks out on a date when they meet after one of her nightclub performances. Jeanne sings jazz, but she’s a big fan of blues music, so Sweetwater takes her to a blues club on their first date. Real-life blues singer/musician Gary Clark Jr. has a cameo as in “Sweetwater” as a blues singer/musician named T-Bone, who is an acquaintance of Sweetwater’s.

“Sweetwater” shows this interracial romance, but none of the realistic conversations that would be a part of this romance. No one in Sweetwater’s inner circle makes any comments about this interracial relationship. (Jeanne’s friends are never shown.) Although a few white people glare with disapproval when they see Sweetwater and Jeanne together in public, neither Sweetwater nor Jeanne expresses any concern for their own safety for being in an interracial relationship, even though it would definitely be a concern in real life during this time period. In America in the 1940s and the 1950s, a black man would be in physical danger for dating a white woman, even in states where racial integration was legal.

But you’d never know it from watching this movie, which erases that type of historical context. What makes this erasure look so phony and inconsistent in “Sweetwater” is that the movie has many scenes where racism is a big problem for Sweetwater and his fellow Globetrotters when it’s related to their basketball work, but the movie tries to make it look like racism doesn’t exist when Sweetwater decides to date a white woman. (The movie never shows him romantically interested in any other women.) It’s another example of how the “Sweetwater” filmmakers have huge blind spots because of how they mishandle realistic depictions of race relations when telling this story. And in this male-dominated movie, it looks very sexist that Jeanne is the only female character who is given a name.

By removing so many authentic details about the real Clifton’s life, “Sweetwater” is ultimately a fake-looking, watered-down biopic. Fascinating aspects of Sweetwater’s life before he became a pro basketball player (such as serving in the U.S. Army during World War II) are barely mentioned or not mentioned at all. And the filmmakers of “Sweetwater” should be ashamed that they made his entire existence look like it only mattered in the context of how he elevated the status of the white men who used him for their own benefit.

Briarcliff Entertainment released “Sweetwater” in U.S. cinemas on April 14, 2023.

Review: ‘Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun,’ starring Steven Greer, Daniel Sheehan, Russell Targ, Adam Michael Curry, Joe Martino, Jan Harzan and Jim Martin

April 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dr. Steven Greer in “Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Media)

“Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun”

Directed by Michael Mazzola

Culture Representation: This documentary about contact between extraterrestrials and humans on Earth interviews an all-white group of Americans from scientific, legal and creative professions who believe that more humans should make benevolent contact with beings from outer space.

Culture Clash: The people interviewed in the documentary consider themselves to be “free thinkers” and believe that there are vast government conspiracies to make people think that life forms outside of Earth are a threat to human existence.

Culture Audience: “Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun” will appeal mostly to people who believe in UFOs, extraterrestrials and government conspiracy theories.

Dr. Steven Greer in “Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Media)

Do you believe that extraterrestrials from outer space have made contact with humans and vice versa? The answer to that question will largely determine your opinion of “Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun,” a documentary that is really a manifesto for Dr. Steven Greer (described in press materials as “the global authority on extraterrestrials”) and like-minded believers to tell people how they should contact extraterrestrials.

The movie can be considered a sequel to the 2017 documentary “Unacknowledged: An Exposé of the World’s Greatest Secret” (also starring Greer and directed by Michael Mazzola), which had Greer doing an exposé of government documents pertaining to unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and extraterrestrials (ETs). In “Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun,” Greer claims that the government was so afraid of the information in “Unacknowledged” that in reaction to the movie, the government published “millions” of UFO documents on the Internet that confirmed a lot of what the movie claimed.

In “Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun,” Greer says he wants a widespread movement for people on Earth to approach extraterrestrial contact with a peaceful, not hostile, attitude. Many of the people in the movie also go into great detail about how the universe is connected. The problem is that the movie is unabashedly one-sided (no one with opposing viewpoints is interviewed) and at times comes across as an infomercial for Greer’s UFO-sighting events.

Greer is a former medical doctor who founded the Center for the Studies of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CSETI). He gets the vast majority of screen time in the movie, which shows him talking in a futuristic-looking room that has no furniture except for the fold-out chair where Greer sits to share his beliefs. At the end of the movie, most viewers will either think he’s a visionary or a complete nutjob. He claims, among other things, that he’s made contact with ETs several times in his life and that deep transcendental meditation, especially in groups, is the best way to make contact with ETs.

Greer also claims that through his work before and during CSETI, he has gotten mind-blowing information from an untold number of former government officials and whistleblowers. According to Greer, the U.S. government is actively working to brainwash the public into believing that if outer-space aliens really do exist, the U.S. military will be prepared to protect the United States, if not the world. He and other people interviewed in the documentary (including constitutional attorney Daniel Sheehan) say that there are secret departments in the CIA, the FBI and the U.S. military—as well as secret departments in many other countries’ governments—that have been covering up shocking information about what they know about UFOs and ETs. Greer is of the firm belief that ETs are the peaceful ones, and people on Earth are more likely to do the attacking.

While you wrap you head around all of these claims, here are the five kinds of “close encounters” that people on Earth can have with ETs, as explained in the documentary:

  • Close encounters of the first kind are visual sightings of UFOs.
  • Close encounters of the second kind are physical traces of ETs or UFOs, such as impressions on the ground.
  • Close encounters of the third kind are when occupants or pilots of ET spacecraft are witnessed.
  • Close encounters of the fourth kind are when a human is brought on board an ET spacecraft.
  • Close encounters of the fifth kind are pro-active communications with ETs.

“Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun” also includes a lot of mostly grainy video footage that’s described as UFO sightings. The footage is labeled as being filmed in various places around the world, but mostly in the United States, with a great deal in Florida and California. And, not surprisingly, most of the footage is from Greer’s CE5 contact events. The same goes for the photos that the documentary presents as “ET light sources” and “ET silhouettes” that have been captured on camera during CE5 contact events and elsewhere. However, skeptics would say that footage and photos like these can easily be faked.

The documentary is divided into three chapters. “Chapter 1: Blood & Treasure” talks about how government agencies, in cooperation with mainstream media, are shaping an untrue narrative that outer-space life forms are dangerous and we need to be ready for any attack. This narrative is reinforced in movies that portray outer-space aliens as creatures whose intentions are to kills humans and take over the world. Greer believes that humans, not ETs, are really the biggest threat to themselves. He also says that ETs are dismayed at how humans are destroying the Earth’s environment, and if ETs really wanted to attack Earth, they would have done it already. Greer claims that the U.S. government has already secretly shot down UFOs and that the dead bodies of ETs are in secret areas that are monitored by the government.

“Chapter 2: The Crossing Point of Light” goes into a lengthy discussion about how ETs communicate not through the speed of light but through the speed of thought. The documentary has some charts and graphics about how physics and emotional energy play a role in contacting ETs. It’s in this chapter that the film veers into advocating for transcendental meditation, especially in group sessions. There are testimonials from some of Greer’s CE5 event participants (mostly aging hippie types), and they’re very rapturous in describing these events as life-changing experiences. Much of what they describe sounds a lot like people who’ve taken psychedelics, but it’s not mentioned in the documentary if they take any mind-bending drugs when they go on these UFO-and-ET-sighting excursions.

“Chapter 3: A New World” covers what would happen if more humans made peaceful contact with ETs, which Greer says is a goal that more people in the world should have. Several of the people in the documentary believe that ETs who’ve been to Earth are much more advanced than humans and have technology that’s far beyond present-day human concepts. Greer says it would be like if modern-day people went back in time to the 1700s and tried to explain smartphone technology to people in that era. This chapter in the movie also puts forth the belief that human-ET relations could be beneficial to our health. A CE5 participant named Ed Moen says that an ET encounter that he had at one of the events resulted in him no longer needing hearing aids and having his hearing perfectly restored.

Greer comments that one of the reasons why he’s doing the documentary is for “free thinkers” to make contact with ETs, because the government can’t be trusted to tell the public the whole truth of what’s known about ETs. He says in the documentary, “No one has asked the question, ‘How do we develop a relationship with the occupants of UFOs?’ Who’s on board? Why are they here?” And as far as Greer and like-minded believers are concerned, a multidisciplinary company such as To the Stars…Academy of Arts & Sciences (co-founded by former Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge), which investigates UFO sightings, is just a front to promote untrustworthy government propaganda.

Greer also says that people and ETs have to find a commonality “outside of the purview” of the government. Greer claims that information he’s uncovered is “subversive and dangerous.” He also says that he’s been threatened many times by government officials (he doesn’t name names), but that he’s not afraid of being assassinated, because a near-death experience that he had when he was young made him no longer fear death. However, Greer does break down and cry when he talks about “whistleblowers” he’s worked with who have committed suicide or have been “assassinated” because of what they know. He doesn’t name names, but he says he has “survivor’s guilt.”

Greer also compares the group of people who’ve bypassed national security to try to make contact with ETs as similar to the people involved in the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He makes this comparison because he says the civil-rights movement didn’t come from the top down, but it started with everyday people on a grass-roots level. Greer’s comparison of people fighting against damaging racial discrimination and people fighting for their belief to make contact with ETs might be considered offensive, considering that most of the people looking to make contact with ETs don’t seem to be very oppressed in their daily lives.

Based on the people interviewed for documentaries like this and the video footage shown of Greer’s CE5 events, the vast majority of the people involved are white, middle-class or upper-class, and over the age of 35. In other words, not exactly a diverse group. And they’ve probably never experienced the kind of civil-rights discrimination where they could be arrested for sitting in the front of a bus or going into a certain area, just because they’re a certain race. (Every person interviewed in this documentary is white and mostly male, although there’s a half-hearted attempt at diversity at the end of the movie, which has a brief archival video montage of people around the world who claim to believe in ETs.) And it begs the question: Who is Greer’s real target audience to be his leading allies in this movement, if the people who end up going to his events are people who have the time and money to do that kind of thing?

And although Greer believes that the “peace and love” approach is the best way to live life and make contact with ETs, the filmmakers made the odd choice to have actor Jeremy Piven (whose career has been torpedoed by numerous sexual-misconduct allegations) as the documentary’s voiceover narrator. Piven has denied the allegations, but he had a reputation for being “difficult” long before the allegations surfaced. He’s usually cast as a jerk/hothead, and in real life, he isn’t known for being a harmonious figure in the entertainment industry.

It seems incongruous to have someone with this volatile reputation narrate a movie whose message is supposed to be about human tranquility and putting peaceful energy into the universe. But since Piven doesn’t appear on camera, his involvement in the movie isn’t too much of a distraction. He narrates the film with a kind of slightly forceful tone that conspiracy theorists usually have, so maybe that’s why the filmmakers wanted him to be the narrator.

The movie’s ideas aren’t really supposed to be politically partisan, but the documentary shows some political bias that metaphorically comes from out of left field. The documentary states that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (Democratic candidates who ran for U.S. President in the 2020 election) are mainstream political hacks who would toe the government line of covering up the truth about ETs. The documentary then says that Bernie Sanders (another Democratic candidate, who’s more left-leaning than Biden and Harris) would be more open-minded, but he would be “besieged” by corrupt government entities to take part in the cover-ups too. It’s not a blatant endorsement of Sanders, but it comes pretty close, since he’s singled out in the documentary as a possible political ally to the movement that Greer wants to have.

There’s also some religious bias in the documentary, since Greer says he’s reached out to the Vatican to try and enlist the Catholic Church’s help in spreading his message. Greer comments in the documentary, “We have to come forward with a positive set of programs and a positive vision for this.” Some of the people interviewed in the documentary who echo Greer’s overall thoughts on human-ET relations include attorney Sheehan, Mufon executive director Jan Harzan, physicist Dr. Russell Targ, Collective Evolution founder Joe Martino, inventor/entrepreneur Adam Michael Curry, screenwriter Dave Marconi and CE5 producer Jim Martin, who is also one of the producers of this documentary.

“Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun” presents some fascinating stories and scientific theories about life that exists beyond Earth. However, the movie undermines a lot of the credibility that it wishes to have by interviewing only fervent believers of Greer’s message, instead of being a true investigative documentary that tries to get varied perspectives, even from skeptics, so that viewers can make up their own minds.

When filmmakers present only one side of an argument in a documentary, it makes them look like they’re afraid to include other ways of thinking. And that exclusion of other viewpoints is a type of propaganda pushing that this documentary claims to be against. However, there’s one thing that the documentary didn’t forget to include, which is sneaked in during the last five minutes of this two-hour movie—promotion of Greer’s CE5 app, so people can help fund his agenda.

1091 Media released “Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun” on digital on April 7, 2020. The movie’s VOD release is on April 24, 2020.

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