Well before filmmaker Akin Omotoso ever knew that Disney had plans to bring the remarkable true story of Nigerian-born, Greek-raised NBA great Giannis Antetokounmpo, to life on the screen (as Rise, which is
After all, Omotoso, too, was born and raised in Nigeria before his family immigrated to South Africa, where he would ultimately launch his acting, writing, and directing career and draw acclaim for films including Tell Me Sweet Something, Vaya, and Catching Feelings. And he was an unabashed fan of the NBA basketball, with a particular fondness for players of African origin.
Thus, he was well aware of the remarkable ascent of Antetokounmpo in particular, who rose from being an innately talented, hard-working late bloomer from an undocumented immigrant family in Greece frequently on the verge of exposure to a superstar power forward on the Milwaukee Bucks.
"When I read about Giannis's story, I was like, 'Man, if ever I make a film, this would be the story I'm telling,'" Omotoso tells Metacritic. "This was in 2013, before he's a two-time MVP, before he's the NBA champion. Fast forward to 2019, I get off the plane in Los Angeles and I see Sports Illustrated with Giannis on the cover. Reading it, there's a line there that says, 'Disney's making a movie of his life.'"
The filmmaker wasted no time getting his agent on the phone: "I'm like, 'Whatever you do, you got to get me in that room, and let me tell them how I would make this story. Because I've been dreaming about this story.'"
It took a year for Omotoso to get that meeting, all the while keeping that fateful issue of Sports Illustrated at his bedside to consult daily for inspiration. When the day came, "I went in and I spoke from the heart: I had nothing to lose; I had everything to gain. … And seven weeks later, the night Giannis won his second MVP, I got the job. And I've been smiling ever since."
Indeed, the unlikely Cinderella story of the Antetokounmpo family — not only Giannis' success, but that of his older brother Thanasis and younger brother Kostas, who also went into the NBA with standout careers of their own — resonated early on with other members of the Rise cast and crew as well. In telling their story, authenticity became essential.
Once Omotoso had secured the project, he was both relieved and excited to be able to collaborate with Giannis himself, who serves as an executive producer on the film, as well as other members of the Antetokounmpo family who offered their insights in their unique journey.
"When Giannis said, 'We grew up in Athens, but obviously I grew up in a Nigerian home.' What does that mean, cinematically? What are the tenets of home? It's food. It's music. So, that starts to inform what kind of music we're going use, because as you walk the streets, you might be walking Athens, but you might be thinking about the song your mom sang to you back in Lagos," the director explains, adding that physically shooting on the very same basketball court where Giannis and Thanasis learned the sport, and even slept on occasion due to their dedication, is another layer of that authenticity in the film.
However, only Nigerian-born actress Yetide Badaki had direct access to the person she was playing, matriarch Veronica. ("I saw this character who's all heart — home is where the heart is — and she just brilliantly, along with this incredible family, maintained faith at times when things seemed almost impossible," says Badaki.) Neither Uche Agada, who plays Giannis, nor his real-life brother Ral Agada, who plays Thanasis, could meet the pro ballers because they were in the playoffs during filming. ("That was actually the same year they won the championship, so they were pretty busy! But we definitely learned a lot just by doing research. There was a whole bunch of stuff on the internet that we watched, listened to, and read that definitely helped us with our performances," Uche says.) And Charles Antetokounmpos passed away in 2017, so Dayo Okeniyi, who portrays him in the film, had to glean key details from Veronica for certain scenes, such as one that features the family dancing together. (Veronica described Charles' habit of making a crucifix to the heavens when dancing, "which is so funny, because until today when Giannis runs on the basketball court at the beginning of a basketball game, he does that, and they say he got that from his father," Okeniyi says.)
It is not lost on those who made Rise that the Antetokounmpos brothers were plucked from obscurity and given a long-shot chance at success, and with this film, so have the Agada siblings playing them, who were cast after a world wide-casting call for actors over 6-feet-two-inches tall.
"Giannis sending out the tweets saying, 'Hey, Disney's making a movie about me. You can please send your tapes in — no experience needed,'" recalls Omotoso.
Uche at the time was working at a Wawa convenience store in New Jersey when he responded to the post.
"When he got the part, producer Bernie Goldmann asked him, 'By any chance — because we're still trying to cast Thanasis — do you have a brother?'" Omotoso says.
Uche says making his first foray onto a film set was made considerably less anxiety-inducing with his brother by his side in nearly every scene. "Walking in front of the camera with Ral made things a whole lot easier, especially because that's one of the first scenes that we started with, just him and I. That definitely was a good way to start the entire process," he explains.
Still, the dramatic scenes proved challenging, and even more so than the basketball choreography because the latter "wasn't very foreign to us. Working out with our sports coordinator and getting conditioned, getting into to shape and trying our best to look like those players, it wasn't as new as acting was," he continues.
For, as much as Rise is a story about professional basketball players, it is even more a story about a family fighting through adversity to reap the rewards of success, a story about immigration, and a story about all of the highs and lows that can come with finding a place in a different culture.
"In a lot of my work, I've always looked at people who come from outside, who come into a new space, and how do they make this new space home?" Omotoso says. "There's a powerful line in the movie where [an antagonistic Greek basketball scout] says, 'We'll make sure you all get sent back home.' And the father says, 'This is our home,' which is what I truly believe. So, it just felt organic to me, this story. I fully understood it on a human level."
"It is an inspiring story," agrees Uche, "because it can show that no matter where you are, where you come from, what you look like, you can have whatever you want, even though there might be roadblocks in the way and a whole bunch of adversity. As long as you continue to work hard, you can have whatever you want."