The heart of any good sports drama is not so much what happens on the court. It’s what happens off of it that tugs at our heartstrings and appeals to our emotions. And while there’s a familiar structure to these stories, the real impact of Akin Omotoso‘s Rise comes from its resonating themes and relevant subject matter. So even though it plays like any old-fashioned sports drama, it immediately connects because Antetokounmpos’s experiences are a modern-day story about family, faith, and perseverance told through the immigrant lens.
Rise tells the story of Charles and Vera Antetokounmpo (Dayo Okeniyi and Yetide Badaki, respectively), who, after emigrating from Nigeria to Greece, struggle to provide a better life for their five kids. While the family lives under the constant threat of deportation and eviction, they find themselves fighting an uphill battle against a broken system that refuses to grant them Greek citizenship. Yet, the bonds they share and a passion for sports keep them together. And it’s only until Giannis (Uche Agada) and Thanasis (Ral Agada) discover their incredible untapped potential for basketball that helps Antetokounmpo become the champions. Because when one person in the family scores, they all score.
While dynasty teams and hall of famers make for compelling sports history, the best true-life sports stories turned into film give the audience the visual experience needed to take them to a place they’ve never been before and completely changed by the end. It’s even better when it’s an underdog story with a clear goal and established arcs because we are primed to root for those facing incredible odds.
Though Rise could have been about Giannis and Thansis’ rise to glory, the film splits its time to give Charles and Vera a chance to tell their stories of their struggles and triumphs. As such, Arash Amel’s script strikes a balance between the athletes’ determination to provide for their family, the parents’ struggle to maintain steady employment while facing threats of deportation back to their native country of Nigeria, and confronting anti-immigrant attitudes in Greece. It makes for a compelling drama that makes for a timeless underdog sports story and feels relevant because of its current subject matter.
And news about immigrants and their politics continue to hit the headlines across the world. So even though Rise revolves around Basketball, the film’s beating heart is Anteokounmpo’s story about overcoming those great odds as they live their lives in amenity and struggle to make ends meet, pay the bills and rent, and put food on the table for the kids. But this isn’t just a parental effort because, as the film constantly reiterates, when one person scores, the whole family scores. As such, they work together. While Vera and the kids are busy selling consumer goods to tourists, Charles works other jobs ranging from farming olives to janitorial duties. These jobs also serve a dual purpose as they will help them gain the status they need to secure citizenship. Or at least we’d like to think since even if they secure a job that puts them on payroll, immigration constantly moves up the goalposts.
Rise also gives us glimpses into what the parents faced while trying to gain Greek citizenship. Early on, the film reveals their hardships as they hide from an immigration police force arresting those who are where illegally. Even the quieter moments carry a certain amount of emotional weight as Charles and Vera are constantly disrespected by immigration agents who can’t spell their surnames right and the landlords. They threaten to lock them out of their homes. These may be some of the film’s darker moments, but Charles and Vera’s perseverance shows us the strength of their family and the outcomes when their faith is put to the test.
But Rise is also about Giannis and Thansis’ journey to NBA stardom. As the film moves towards its second act, we see a narrative shift that focuses on the players’ lives in a Greek amateur league while revealing their struggles and the risks they took to play as undocumented immigrants. The arc shines a light on those themes of family and faith as they are motivated by the selfless act to help their parents and family stick together. And many of those ideals come through, especially when it is revealed how many teams were hesitant to sign either of them on because of their undocumented status. But that didn’t stop them from Charles or Vera seeing their kids live up to the family mantra and rewarding their efforts with simple acts of love or an individual pair of sneakers they no longer have to share.
Reenacting some of these moments is necessary to reflect on real-life tragedies within the separation of families, the cruelty of anti-immigration sentiment, and the fear of being deported. These racial and political components helped make the Antetokounmpo’s journey significant. It also allows audiences to empathize with the family’s plight of their struggles to stay together and away from the police. Key scenes reveal how certain decisions impacted the family and how the subsequent relationships would affect family dynamics and their future. And the film has some pretty interesting things to say about the politics of becoming a player in a professional league and the lengths to which the family will go to protect themselves from the media, and the social and monetary success that comes with it.
Of course, it’s not all gloomy, as there are enough lighthearted moments to keep things from becoming too depressing. Rise isn’t afraid to celebrate Antetokounmpo’s Nigerian heritage. There is a sense of pride in Charles, who talks about the etymology of the Antetokounmpo surname. And just in case you don’t know, the Antetokounmpo given name and surname Yoruba origin meaning “the king across the seas.” That pride is also expressed through the music, hair, vocal inflections, and clothing as well. They’re not hiding their culture or their identity. They are merely fighting to secure a place they can call home. And they do that, together, as a family. Which makes those family bonding moments emotional and helps ground the film. What’s even more amazing is that the film’s lead stars Uche Agada as Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Ral Agada as Athanasios “Thanasis” Antetokounmpo have little to no acting experience. It’s as if they were destined to play these roles.
Rise may be formulaic in its execution, but its timely story immediately connects with those who lived those experiences or empathizes with those real-life stories because it’s told through the immigrant lens. It may not reinvent the way we see sports dramas, but because of its relevancy, underdog elements, and real-life championship-caliber players it is based on, it is a story that’s worth telling.
Rise will be available to stream on Disney+ starting June 24, 2022.