It’s never easy adapting a real story like the tale of the Antetokounmpo family. These are real people that are seeing their own story romanticized to tell a story within a specific format. Disney+ has undertaken this tale with Rise, as Nigerian director Akin Omotoso explores the story of basketball stars and the history that their family faced moving from Nigeria to Greece before they’d eventually find themselves in the NBA playing field making a name for themselves. Yet, can the Disney+ film pull off their story?
Surprisingly, this film takes a heartfelt direction and avoids the general trappings of any sports film by simply not really being about the sport. Yes, we do get elements of that sprinkled throughout, but it’s not a basketball film. It’s more about the family of Antetokounmpo and their journey to the point that Giannis (Uche Agada) and Athanasios (Ral Agada) find their passion in the sport. The National Basketball Association is a big part of their journey but it’s mostly the big tension builder within the climax that brings their journey together into the successful career the brothers have built.
What this film is about is the Antetokounmpo family. It’s exploring their roots as they fled Nigeria and started their life in Greece, which is where most of the film takes place. It was great to get a focus on their story and a lot of time is spent with their parents Veronica (Yetide Badaki) and Charles (Dayo Okeniyi). Especially with an emotional speech at the end, you see why this choice was made. It’s a story about immigrants and the challenges they faced being undocumented. It’s a story that will always be relevant and it doesn’t shy away from the harsh treatment they had to face.
Still, there’s a hopeful message here. It’s about finding your passion and going for it. Charles Antekounmpo‘s past as a soccer player and he wants his kids to enjoy sports the same way he did. Yet, there’s the constant fear of losing everything due to their undocumented status and putting his family at risk throughout. The story isn’t creating a definite “villain” but does showcase various people as selfish that are trying to benefit from the family’s situation. The conflict is simply the constant fear of them being discovered and fighting the system that refuses to give them documents, to begin with.
Once the spark of passion is discovered for Giannis and Athanasios, it gives us some truly heartwarming moments. Seeing the brothers share shoes due to them only being able to afford a single pair is powerful. We don’t have traditional “bullies” but have some typical reactions from people, but the story isn’t then suddenly about them handling people mocking them for poverty. The film focuses on the hopeful message at its core and it does that wonderfully. There are times when the story drags slightly, but it’s an emotional tale that takes its time.
Rise is a film about inspiring people and it does that well. It also needs to be highlighted to not focus only on their NBA history. This is a story about a Nigerian-Greek family struggling in that environment and trying to get by. Finding hope and passion in basketball, but never purely focusing or defining its story by it. The act that Akin Omotoso tells this story is a delight, as the Nigerian director brings something to the table that makes this project stand out in interesting ways. Nothing is truly glorified in this story, it feels grounded and human with many influences from the many countries that represent the Antetokounmpo.
If you’ve been looking for a film to just give you that spark to follow your dreams again, this film might be exactly the one you’re looking for. It’s also a story that definitely was worth telling and gives some talented newcomers a chance to tell this story. The ending hits you emotionally, even for those that may not have a connection to the NBA and these players’ stories prior to watching this film. There’s something powerful about a hopeful message and just seeing a success story that seemingly beats the odds.