You can sense that condescension in the film’s unnatural development, as seen in commonplace scenes of prejudice: Eric Roberts briefly appears as a bigoted service station owner that shouts the Black Globetrotters away from his gas by touting a double barrel shotgun; a hotel rents a room to the monkey Mr. Bananas rather than the Globetrotters; an NBA owner during a league meeting bangs his fist on the table to exclaim, “It’s not a Negro league, and it never will be.” None of these people feel real. They’re the Montgomery Ward catalog of racists common to so many Civil Rights movies, they’ve become noxious cliches, particularly in this drab script, which feels like an AI chatbot wrote it.
The actors, admittedly left adrift in this reductive narrative, appear to sleepwalk on low-effort mode: Richard Dreyfuss plays league president Maurice Podoloff with little panache, and Piven doesn’t even bother to shave his beard to fit the appearance of not just the real-life-person he’s playing, but a coach of the period.
Throughout the film, you always wonder where “Sweetwater” wants to end or who it cares about. It all culminates in Sweetwater’s NBA debut, but even that game lacks integrity. The refs call glaringly racist fouls on Sweetwater and his radical game, only in the waning seconds to mysteriously flip and call the game his way. The announcers, who might or might not be cheekily calling the game, spiral into “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” territory with every line of on-the-nose nauseating dialogue like, “His flashy play has thrown a curveball into the NBA.”
Not content with simply portraying a Black pioneer like Sweetwater as human, Guigui hoists him to mythical and magical status, racked by the torture of otherness. “My game don’t belong here,” says Sweetwater, in a belabored manner not unlike Michael Clarke Duncan’s “I’m tired, boss” in “The Green Mile.” His life isn’t his own; his success becomes the self-congratulatory success of every moderate, neoliberal white person who populates the film. Even the racist cop is given a beat of redemption when he compliments Sweetwater with “good game.”
We later return to that cab for no great reason other than how the film began. “I’m just the messenger,” says Sweetwater, spreading the gospel to white people about the Black superstars who came before MJ. The main problem, however, is that the film chosen to deliver that message is rotten.
Now playing in theaters.