“Sugar” is a critically acclaimed indie film about a 20-year-old Dominican pitcher’s minor league baseball season in Iowa. “Half Nelson,” the last collaboration of its married auteurs, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, brought Ryan Gosling a Best Actor nomination as a caring white liberal teacher in a Brooklyn slum school attended by African-Americans and Dominicans. Because numerous Dominican immigrants in New York City are failed minor leaguers, “Sugar” was a logical next film for the pair.
This movie is about a black Dominican, but it was very much made for white Americans. Indeed, “Sugar” exemplifies Sundance movies. It’s so sensitive, subtle, soft-spoken, averse to crowd-pleasing gimmicks, and generally beholden to the Stuff White People Like rulebook that few ballplayers of any nationality would pay to see it. Dodger slugger Manny Ramirez would snore so loudly through it that the audience couldn’t hear the soundtrack’s climactic song: Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah sung in Spanish.
Boden and Fleck wanted not a tale of triumph, but a statistically representative illustration of the typical Dominican athlete’s brief career. We see the young pitcher Sugar (portrayed by Algenis Perez Soto, an amateur second baseman who visibly can’t throw his character’s supposed 95 mph fastball) at the Kansas City organization’s training academy in the baseball-mad small city of San Pedro de Macorís (birthplace of 73 major league players, including Sammy Sosa). We follow him to spring training in Phoenix, then to Single A ball in Iowa. There, he’s lonely because there are no Spanish-speaking girls to chat up. After an injury, he’s demoted to the bullpen. His pride too wounded to return home, he quits the team and hops a bus to the South Bronx, where he pursues a career in illegal immigration.
Although most Dominicans (such as the American-born Alex Rodriguez) are some shade of beige, San Pedro ballplayers tend to be descended from black Jamaicans brought in to chop sugar cane. Last year, the 88 Dominicans made up almost 12 percent of major league rosters, despite the Dominican Republic having only three percent of America’s population. The average major league salary is approaching $3 million, so Dominican big leaguers earn around a quarter of a billion dollars annually.
The young ballplayer claims he’s nicknamed “Sugar” because he’s “so sweet with the ladies,” but Boden and Fleck want their film’s title to convey that by signing so many Dominican teens, baseball teams are, like sugar companies, neocolonialist exploiters. To the filmmakers, American ballclubs are to blame both for exploiting Dominicans and for not exploiting African Americans. Fleck complains that the black American share “has gone down to somewhere around 8 or 9 percent now, while the Dominican population in baseball has risen dramatically. Major League Baseball has taken money out of the inner cities … and flipped it into the Dominican Republic, where they can sign players much cheaper.” In the Sundance worldview, whatever happens is white people’s fault; blacks can’t make choices for themselves.
In reality, while MLB teams would love to employ verbally charismatic African Americans instead of tongue-tied Spanish speakers, black American kids these days mostly consider baseball boring. The Dominican Republic represents one of the few sizable concentrations of fast and strong youths of West African descent who find baseball more fascinating than basketball, soccer, or cricket. (Also, steroids can be bought legally without a prescription in Dominican pharmacies.)
The real scandal is that big league baseball has facilitated the illegal immigration of tens of thousands of washed-up uneducated jocks. MLB privatizes profits and socializes costs.
The irony in this trend of dramas striving to be “more documentary-like” is that the best documentaries are far more satisfyingly dramatic than “Sugar.” For example, Werner Herzog’s popular documentary “Grizzly Man” culminates with the annoying protagonist being devoured by a bear. Documentaries that follow somebody as ho-hum as Sugar are unlikely to get widely distributed or even finished.
Boden and Fleck are garnering critical kudos for refusing to create an intriguing plot. Yet, they didn’t have to redo “Rocky” They could have, say, made the kid not a 20-year-old prospect but an 18-year-old prodigy. Once the audience is rooting for him, they could then have yanked the rug out by revealing that the phenom’s agent, like previous Dominican talent hustlers (such as, ironically enough, their own technical advisor, ex-Cincinnati Red Jose Rijo), had defrauded the Americans: the sensation’s not 18, he’s really 22, with just a journeyman’s natural talent. Now, that would be a story.
Rated R for language, some sexuality, and brief drug use.
July 5, 2009
With baseball's All-Star game coming up and Dominican star Manny Ramirez back from his 50 game suspension for steroids, here's the full-length version of my review from The American Conservative of the film "Sugar:"