I’m not a huge baseball fan, but I know what’s going on and can follow a game. When I heard about the latest release by Sony Pictures, Sugar, a documentary style film based on the experience of a Dominican baseball player, I thought this was a witty way to get more Latinos in movies by going through “America’s game.” This is clever marketing as the interest of baseball fans can be piqued, as well as reaching out to consumers of color, immigrants, and multi-lingual communities.
Sugar’s protagonist is Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a 19-year-old from San Pedro de Macorís, Dominican Republic, who is given the nickname “Sugar” by his teammates because of his sweet tooth. The film opens with scenes from a language class for the young aspiring baseball players at their camp. For some reason, a good portion of viewers began chuckling as the group recites their instructor’s example of words, such as “fly ball,” “home run,” and “ground ball.” I’m not one to find accents funny, so the audience erupting in laughter is ear-cringing, taking away from the everyday battles that Latino immigrants must face. But to describe how refreshing it is to see a Caribbean family that looks so much like the ones I know and am a part of is almost impossible. In many ways Sugar affirms our existence.
Sugar also acknowledges the challenges, hopes, dreams, and work that are put into molding aspiring athletes. Each young man has a goal to leave Dominican Republic and play in the minor and/or major leagues in the US. We follow Sugar as he is recruited by a minor league team in Iowa where he reunites with the only other Dominican player, Jorge (Rayniel Rufino). Audiences observe as Sugar struggles with leaving home, learning English, creating friendships, as well as thinking of his future. It’s not an easy film to watch as my heart breaks when reminded how difficult it is to survive the isolation that comes with relocation. I know exactly what Sugar feels when he yearns to eat something other than his usual breakfast at a local diner, but doesn’t know how to say what else he wants in English.
Sugar reminds viewers that there are people who do want to help, and not just to feel good about themselves, but because they actually care. Parts of the film are predictable, such as the relationships that are and aren’t formed with members of Sugar’s host family in Iowa, which makes me roll my eyes more than once. However, the final scene takes me by surprise. There is no fairy tale ending in this story, nor is there an attempt to “sugarcoat” how some of his experiences with the remittance he provides his family, trying to save money, and finding a community to call his own. The relationship Sugar forms with Osvaldo, (Jaime Tirelli), is one that is beautifully authentic to real life experiences among Latinos.
Lacking in Sugar is any analysis of how race, gender, ethnicity, and immigration intersect. Sugar is clearly a dark-skinned man of color, and may even be perceived as racially black (which some may argue he is in the US), yet the film never goes deeper into this controversial topic. The time is ripe to begin these conversations and explore how complex our identities are, especially when someone arrives in the US where racial formation is very much a part of the immigrant experience and can be startling. Nevertheless, I hope Sugar receives the recognition it deserves from audiences everywhere. It is rare when we have performances such as these that we honor and value because they belong to us.
Sugar premieres on Friday, April 3.