Rise, the amazing real-life story of the Antetokounmpo family, the first family in the NBA to produce a trio of brothers to become NBA champions in the league's history, is the subject of a new Disney+ film. The director, Akin Omotoso, and cast--including Yetide Badaki, Dayo Okeniyi, Uche Agada and Ral Agada--are excited for fans to learn more about this exceptional family, especially in the midst of the hardships facing society today.
Shadow and Act spoke with the cast and director and Uche and Ral, real-life brothers, talked about what it was like to get cast as brothers Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo.
"They had asked if I had any siblings and I told them an older brother and from there I gave them Ral's information," said Uche, with Ral adding that he was "shocked" since he was celebrating his younger brother's success.
"I was just so happy for him…so when they asked me, I was like, 'Okay, this is surprising, but okay, why not? Of course I'll try,'" he said.
The film also served as a departure of sorts for Badaki, who is best known for playing Bilquis on American Gods. As the Atentokounmpo brothers' mother Veronika, Badaki said she was able to play into the humanness of acting.
"I think I can say there's range there, going from the goddess of love to mother of kings…or actually did I do the same thing?" she said, laughing. "It was interesting on an acting level going from…a lot of stillness and a lot of slow, sustained movements that were all about an age-old goddess to coming into a place where I could lean into the awkwardness of reality and let my body lay in that space and also being able to tell a story of a real-life individual and a real-life family…as an actor, it was a dream."
It was also a dream for Omotoso, who had followed the Antetokounmpos' rise to NBA stardom since the beginning.
"I was definitely very familiar with [the family's] story as an avid basketball fan," he said. "I came to basketball via Michael Jordan and being obsessed with Jordan and then obsessed with the NBA."
He said that at the time he was learning more about the NBA, the only African players were Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo. But in 2013, when Giannis was drafted, he read about his backstory and found the movie he wanted to make.
"In 2013, when Giannis was drafted, I read his backstory and I was just like, man if ever I made a basketball movie, it would be this guy's story right there," he said, adding that in 2019, once he read in Sports Illustrated that Disney had optioned his story for a movie, he was adamant about becoming part of the project.
"I said to my agent, 'Whatever you do, you gotta get me in that room so I can tell them how I would tell the story," he said.
His prior films, Vaya and Catching Feelings, earned him notoriety in America, and working on Rise is just the next step in his ascension.
"It was amazing," he said of working with Disney+. "It was everything that I always dreamt of….It was just a dream come true, where everybody's attention was just to tell their…incredible story. I like when everyone is clicking like that because you're just united in what we're trying to do. And for all of us, it was to make sure we honor this incredible story. Giannis and his family were incredible partners and just an amazing, amazing resource to have."
Omotoso's own story of perseverance with Rise is just one of the many ways the film mirrors and highlights themes of resilience, faith, and hope. The Agada brothers said that they feel the film is great for teaching those life lessons.
"This movie is so much about family and I think that's probably the most important lesson anybody can take from it," said Ral. "Family over everything. These people had each other's backs. they worked so hard, they pushed each other to be better and I think that's by far the most important lesson you can take from it."
"And keeping faith," Uche added. "In difficult times, when you're going through adversity, never lose the faith. Always keep on working, keep on pushing, and in time, everything that you're working for, you'll get there."
Badaki and Okeniyi, who plays the Antetokounmpos' father Charles, said that the film can bring audiences new perspectives on the immigrant experience as well as provide a moral and psychological respite from the troubles facing American society.
"I think it was really important to me that we start conversations around migration, conversations around the kind of language that we use in reference to undocumented immigrants, documented immigrants, refugees," said Badaki. "That we start talking more about the things that we share rather than the things that would divide and that the rhetoric shift from all the negative ideas that we have of individuals that move through borders and start talking about the things that they bring, that we bring, rather it's dreams, whether it's traditions and culture, whether it's resilience [and] the ability to…come from one space where your life had been completely unmoored that you're able to come to a new space and rebuild and show us all that that's possible."
"For me, the most important aspect of the story is that our society today is in a very dark, social, psychological space," said Okeniyi. "Just coming off the last few years that we've been [living through], 2020 with the pandemic, the civil unrest in this country, lack of tolerance, nationalism."
"I think our movie is just a nice little refresher to let people know that we're in a very cynical time, a very jaded time, and to put out a movie that's just pure and just wholesome and just about inspiration and family and the power of positivity, the power of compounded interest in terms of just sheer perseverance and just changing your life through sheer will, I think it's desperately needed right now," he continued. "I don't think our one movie is going to change the world, but I think in the very dark times that we find ourselves in, just a little glimmer of light and a nice family movie goes a long way."
Rise debuts Friday on Disney+.