How Akin Omotoso made a Disney film out of a Nigerian story

By Wilfred Okiche
Posted on Friday, 26 August 2022 16:17

Akin Omotoso attends the world premiere of Rise at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California on June 22, 2022. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

Akin Omotoso was in Los Angeles sometime in 2019 when he came across a 'Sports Illustrated' magazine cover story of Giannis Antetokounmpo. A lifelong basketball enthusiast, Omotoso was naturally drawn to Antetokounmpo’s exploits on the court, but what really hit home for him was Antetokounmpo’s personal journey of triumph against adversity.

A classic Cinderella story, Antetokounmpo and three of his brothers – Thanasis, Alex and Kostas – were born in Athens, Greece to undocumented parents of Nigerian origin. An elder brother, Francis, born in Nigeria, was left behind while their parents migrated to the West in search of better opportunities.

Living stateless and unable to claim full benefits of citizenship for most of their lives, the Antetokounmpo brothers would help their parents hawk goods on the streets of Athens, often at the risk of raids from immigration officers.

Children of former athletes themselves –  their father, Charles, was a football player while their mother Veronica did the long jump – Giannis and Thanasis would discover basketball by chance.

This discovery would be the impetus for a dramatic change in fortune, the kind that would have Giannis on his way to the NBA where he was drafted in 2013 by the Milwaukee Bucks. Success would follow for Thanasis and Kostas as well.

By 2021, the brothers would be the first trio of siblings in league history to become NBA champions.

‘Read like a Disney film’

This once-in-a-lifetime saga of a family unit rising above the odds seeking to hold them back reads like a Disney film. At least that was what veteran Hollywood producer and former Disney executive Bernie Goldmann (300, Mirror Mirror) concluded when the story was pitched to him. With both Goldmann and Giannis on board as producers, Disney joined the project and Rise, the immensely crowd-pleasing autobiographical drama that was released on Disney+ in June, was born.

Still from ‘Rise’

Omotoso read about plans to make the biopic in the magazine profile and immediately knew that he was the man for the job. “I said to my agent, ‘whatever you do, you have to get me in that room’,” Omotoso tells The Africa Report. “I had nothing to lose and everything to gain so I went in there and spoke from the heart about how I would make the film if they gave me the opportunity.” As extra motivation, he kept the magazine by his bedside, refusing to take it away until he was certain the project had found a director.

Kinship with of Antetokounmpo’s story

Apart from his avowed love for basketball, Omotoso also felt kinship with some aspects of Antetokounmpo’s story. Born in Ibadan, Omotoso would spend his formative years in the Obafemi Awolowo University campus where his father was a lecturer in the Drama department.

Heavyweights like Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan were callers of the Omotoso household. Omotoso’s younger sister, Yewande is an acclaimed novelist, longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017. Omotoso would also spend some time in London where his maternal grandparents had migrated from Barbados, so the idea of moving between spaces was not alien to him.

Rise is his biggest project yet and he brought on his people

At the age of 17, the family moved to South Africa when the elder Omotoso resumed as a professor in the University of the Western Cape. While studying Drama at the University of Cape Town, Omotoso fell in love with directing and eventually scored a breakthrough directing episodes of the hit M-Net soap Jacob’s Cross. He would also continue to work as an actor, playing small roles in big films like Blood Diamond and Queen of Katwe.

This multicultural background as well as themes of displacement have often shown up in some of Omotoso’s work. His 2011 film, Man on Ground, is a bleak account of two Nigerian brothers caught up in a wave of xenophobic uprising in Johannesburg. The critically acclaimed Vaya, perhaps his magnum opus, is based on real life accounts of young South Africans migrating via rail from their villages to the big city.

Disney executives were impressed with Vaya and Omotoso’s pitch – his background and love for basketball certainly helped. Following a lengthy seven-week process, he was offered the job of directing Rise. The same day, Giannis won his second straight Most Valuable Player award at the NBA.

By this time – and on Antetokounmpo’s insistence – the film had evolved from a straightforward Giannis biopic to a more inclusive celebration of family. Omotoso reflects on his attraction to the project saying: “It might have had to do with something interesting about the outsider looking into a place. They are an authentic family, and you don’t fake that.”

Challenges in shooting

Making Rise meant shooting significant portions on location in Greece in order to capture the real-life spaces where Giannis and his family existed. It also meant finding actors who could embody that specific experience of being Nigerian.

Omotoso is quick to downplay his insistence on casting as authentic as possible, choosing to highlight the talent of his performers, but it is hard to miss the intentionality. All of the Nigerian characters – major and minor – in Rise are played by actors with some Nigerian background. This immediately lends the film an air of authenticity and intimacy that is almost impossible to replicate from the outside.

Still from ‘Rise’

Lala Akindoju, a frequent collaborator who worked on Rise both on screen and behind, in the casting unit, tells The Africa Report: “Akin is a fighter for his people. Rise is his biggest project yet and he brought on his people; DOP Kabelo Thathe, costumier Mobolaji Dawodu, and me amongst others, and I didn’t even have to ask him. He would tell me that my duty is to pay it forward and get others like us in the room, but without compromising on standards.”

Even when demanding excellence from his collaborators on a major Disney project, Omotoso ensures his projects are a welcoming space for thoughtful creative expression. Akindoju says: “He believes in process… Akin is a storyteller who is able to remove himself from the equation in order to give the story what it requires. He understands storytelling at its core and stripped [it] to its essence.”

‘Rise’, both a Nigerian and Greek story

Omotoso remains fascinated by the many facets to the Antetokounmpo story and is convinced that no matter how specific it gets, it remains a remarkable and universally relatable celebration of the human spirit. Rise is a Nigerian story and a Greek story, as well as a perfect embodiment of the American dream. It also works as a sports film, a family film and a biopic. For Omotoso, it is a “dream project” as it merges his love for the sports with a feel-good yarn, Rise is also a joyful celebration of Omotoso’s identity and heritage and because of this, the film through music and language and solid mise en scène is reflective of this

There are two memories that Omotoso finds most meaningful about getting the chance to make Rise.

The first for him is getting the opportunity to show an early cut of the film to a private audience composed solely of the Antetokounmpos. He describes the experience as very emotional and fraught with delicate feelings.

The second was having Giannis sign his storied copy of that Sports Illustrated magazine that started it all. Omotoso explains the importance of this moment and why it had come full circle for him. “Keeping that magazine for me was about remembering that dreams come true. That to me was beautiful,” he says.

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