Deeply family-oriented, and partially sports-dedicated, Akin Omotoso’s latest film Rise, which was originally titled Greek Freak, tells an emotional and inspiring grace-to-grace story of the three Antetokounmpo’s brothers within the NBA (National Basketball Association). The family’s real name Adetokunbo was wrongly spelled by a Greek immigration officer as Antetokounmpo. The original name translates to “the crown has returned from overseas,” which is also one of the film’s taglines.
Saddled by the formula of sports films, Rise is not like other sports films where the protagonist strives to defeat an opposing skilled player or team. Instead, they struggle to defeat opposing circumstances like poverty, racism, xenophobia, and fear. These opposing circumstances are perfectly interchanged in the film. With an emphasis on its strong screenplay, good casting and moving dialogue, impressive directing, and scores, this new Disney+ sports biopic is a deserved watch. And even if we know how it would end, underdog stories, with all odds stacked against the protagonists, are still the best kinds of stories.
The film begins when Charles (played by Dayo Okeniyi) and Veronica (played by Yejide Badaki) leave their infant baby Francis with a relative at their home in Lagos, Nigeria, and travel to Istanbul in search of better living conditions. They survive many hardships and endure a lot of tough conditions. We see how Charles and Veronica jump down from a building and hide in flowers when the Istanbul immigration police officers clamp down on their house. They sneak into a bus and luckily cross the border to Greece in the hopes of getting a promising future for their family. In another disturbing but effective scene, we see how the boys and their mother run for their lives when the Greek immigration police officers pursue them while they are hawking souvenirs by the roadside. But instead of recoiling and hiding with their five children, they all toil together to sell souvenirs to tourists. And due to their undocumented status, they live in perpetual fear of being arrested and deported.
Before leaving Nigeria for Europe, Charles was a professional football player with the ambition of playing for the National Team. Since he couldn’t achieve his dream to play for the Nigerian National Team, he wants his sons to become reputable footballers in Europe. He buys footballs and trains them. During a particular training session at the park, Giannis and Thanasis (played by real-life brothers, Uche, and Ral Agada, respectively) discover a basketball game. Their interest is piqued, and they dedicate their time to learning the game. Thanasis learns the game faster and dazzles but Gianni struggles and fumbles.
Being undocumented and growing up in a difficult financial situation, the boys inherited a life of hard work and a never-give-up spirit from their parents. And that ultimately steers them to a remarkably glorious career. The family’s turning point begins when Thanasis is injured on the court during a career-defining game. Doubting his ability to replace his skillful brother and lead the team to victory, Giannis feels confused and lost. Thanasis assures him that “that is his chance to lead the team.” Being motivated by his brother, Giannis grabs the ball and shines. “A king is born” from the moment he hits a three-pointer.
Okeniyi and Badaki’s enactments of Antetokounmpo’s hardworking and determined parents are incredibly impactful. At times Charles is overprotective and strict with the children, at times he is coddling and motivating. He is also gifted at delivering inspiring speeches without sounding pretentious. “If one man scores, the whole team scores…” is a teamwork concept he integrates into his sons. And truthfully, the boys’ spirit of teamwork within and outside of the court makes their dream work. Likewise, Badaki as Veronica is reasonable and supportive of their kids, even when it goes against her principles. When Thanasis and Giannis go to train at the youth club at Filathlitikos without their parent’s knowledge, the coach gives them forms to give their parents to sign. When they present the forms to their parents, Charles is furious and grounds the boys. Veronica tells him to free up the boys and let them be happy. The freedom to play basketball would result in the boys pulling the family out of penury and giving them the homes they coveted. The newcomers, Uche and Ral Agada’s performances as Giannis and Thanasis are remarkable. With the way they physically and emotionally interpret their roles, they bring their true-life family tie to the screen and create magic.
Working from Arash Amel’s brilliant screenplay that allows us to digest the narrative complexity and empathize with the characters, director Akin Omotoso, influenced by several sports movies like Remember The Titans, White Men Can’t Jump, and The Way Back, as well as the basketball video game NBA 2K, remains considerably loyal to the real-life events by deftly showing the daily struggles undocumented immigrants face in Europe. In several well-executed scenes, we see how immigration police officers harass undocumented migrants, which brings to mind the recent dehumanizing and gut-wrenching incident at the Moroccan-Spanish Melilla Border. It’s also impressive how Omotoso blends the family’s affection and struggle with colors and vibrancy that foretell their glorious culmination. Though the consistent vignettes of the family’s financial struggle and the boys’ basketball training seem redundant, it’s nonetheless a satisfactory effort.
Ré Olunuga’s score, ranging from African folk songs to Afrobeat (mainly from an EP title also Rise, released by the Antetokounmpo’s eldest brother Francis, whose stage name is Ofili) to American Hip-Hop and R&B, perfectly complements deeply with the film’s physical and emotional journey. The costumes, especially on Vera and Charles, illustrate the family’s Nigerian roots and spirit.
Rise isn’t just a stunning account of an African immigrant family rising from poverty to riches, it’s a brave statement on the sacrifices many immigrant families make to provide a glorious future for their children. It’s a reasonably honest-to-goodness film whose appeal goes beyond basketball. With its riveting story, the director’s vision, and cinematographer Kabelo Thathe political and sporty adroitness, we applaud the closing touchdown for the family’s triumph over racism, poverty, and shame.
Rise is an encouragement for everyone to rise and shine above their circumstances.
Michael Kolawole is a critic, screenwriter, and poet.