/ 17 July 2022

The rise and rise of Akin Omotoso

Rise Tp 8183 D29a72e6
Having a ball A scene from the biopic ‘Rise’.

I meet Akin Omotoso virtually via Zoom on a chilly Tuesday night in Johannesburg. I’m wearing a beanie in a bid to look cool and keep the cold out. A decision I immediately regret when he pops up on screen, all the way in sunny Los Angeles, wearing a black short-sleeved T-shirt. The thousands of kilometres and 9-hour time difference is palpable before I even get a chance to say hello. 

He makes a facetious remark about how warm and cosy I look. I smile nervously, realising the sarcasm was an attempt at an icebreaker, which eases my nerves slightly. 

The man beaming in front of me looks content – who wouldn’t be after fulfilling a lifelong dream by directing an international hit movie for Disney+.

More than 25 years into his career in acting, writing and filmmaking, the 48-year-old Omotoso found the perfect movie to direct. This high point in his life, and the life of professional basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo, on whom the biopic Rise is based, come together beautifully in the Disney feature film.

Nigerian-born Omotoso is no stranger to storytelling, as he is surrounded by a family of wordsmiths. His father Professor Bonkole “Kole” Omotoso is a writer and intellectual, while his younger sister Yewande Omotoso is a novelist – and an architect. 

Omotoso spent his formative years in Nigeria in the University town of Ife, in Osun State. Life as he knew it changed when the Omotoso family relocated to South Africa when his father (known to many South Africans as the “Yebo Gogo” guy in the Vodacom ads from the early 2000s) accepted a lectureship at the University of the Western Cape in 1991.  

The 17-year-old Akin Omotoso enrolled for a performers’ diploma in speech and drama at the University of Cape Town. After completing drama school, Omotoso pursued a career in acting, becoming a familiar face on the South African small screen, starring in popular soapies Generations and Isidingo. Omotoso went on to perform in the film A Reasonable Man (1999), written and directed by Gavin Hood

When asked if making a movie with Hood had inspired him to start writing his own movies, he says, “I’ve always been inspired to tell stories, growing up around writers like my father and Wole Sonyika. The transition to film was inspired by being at drama school and understanding that film was a medium I could express myself in.” 

Translating that inspiration, and going out on his own, he directed three short films: The Kiss of Milk, The Nightwalkers and The Caretaker and, in 1999, wrote his first feature film God is African, which premiered in 2003. 

Omotoso continued making strides in his craft, carefully straddling the line between actor and director. He went on to direct the much talked-about Tell Me Something Sweet (2015) and Vaya (2016), sending waves throughout the industry and receiving critical acclaim.

When Omotoso was young, he and his older brother fell in love with the game of basketball, going against the stereotype at the time of black African men favouring only one sport – football. Intrigued by the adrenaline rush, by the players’ skill and charisma, he was quickly drawn to the African players. He resonated with their stories, their rise from obscurity to stardom in a foreign land, their tenacity and their dedication to becoming professional players and champions in the NBA, accomplishing what the world thought was unlikely. 

The young Omotoso could never have imagined that his passion for basketball and storytelling would eventually lead to a dream coming true

Omotoso contributes to the website Africa is a Country, and in 2015 for his column Basketball is a Country, he wrote about his experience with basketball and with players with African roots. Giannis Antetokounmpo was one of the players he researched and wrote about. Not only is Antetokounmpo a remarkable player but he became a hero, carrying the dreams of his father, and bringing his brothers into the NBA. Four of the five Antetokounmpo brothers – only the eldest Francis is not a player – went on to play professional basketball. And, in 2021 Giannis, Kostas and Thanasis made history as the first trio of brothers to win NBA Championships.

“When I first heard Giannis’s story, I thought if I ever made a movie about a player, it would be this guy,” says Omotoso. “His origins story is amazing, it speaks beyond basketball; it speaks about life,” he adds. 

As fate would have it, in 2019 while Omotoso was in LA, he saw a Sports Illustrated with Giannis on the cover. The story detailed how Disney was making a movie about the player and his family. “I called my agent and said whatever you do, go and get me in the room,” says Omotoso. He kept that magazine until he got the job, “Every morning and every night I would look at it. I said, ‘I’m not taking off this thing until I know they have a director.’” 

It took a year before he was granted the opportunity to tell the Disney team how he would make the biopic. During that time, Omotoso made his fourth feature Vaya, which the team loved. 

 When he finally landed a face-to-face meeting, he detailed how he would make the movie he had been thinking about for years. 

“They couldn’t believe that there’s not only a guy who wants to tell the story but loves basketball and is crazy about film,” says Omotoso. 

From when he got ‘into the room’ with the team making Rise a reality, it took the executives seven weeks to give him the director job. That’s seven long weeks of in-depth interviews, but true to the good-guy image I have heard so much about, Omotoso never gave up hope. “I had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he says. 

The long-awaited news came on 18 September, 2020 – the night Antetokounmpo won his second Most Valuable Player Award.

Rise is about humanity, perseverance and unrelenting self-belief. It tells the story of how Greek-born Giannis (played by Uche Agada) went from sharing one pair of sneakers with his older brother Thanasis (played by Ral Agada) to triumphing over the odds and becoming one of the most gifted NBA players of his generation. The movie introduces the two new young actors – this is Ral’s first role – who are brothers in real life too.

It is the riveting and heart-warming story of how Giannis’s parents, Charles and Vera (Dayo Okeniyi and Yetide Badaki), are faced with the hardship of leaving their newborn baby behind and moving from Nigeria to Greece in search of better employment opportunities, living in constant fear as illegal immigrants, while struggling to provide for their children. The movie exposes Greek immigration policies which oppress and abuse families struggling to legally obtain citizenship. 

Omotoso cleverly sets up the movie in a way that leaves enough room for the viewer to sympathise with the family’s misfortunes but not enough to dwell on them. And there are enough fast-paced montages to satisfy even the most avid basketball fan. 

The film’s director Akin Omotoso at the Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans, in the US. Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images

As an African, the story’s secondary theme – underdogs – is brought home even more acutely by the knowledge that Omotoso himself was an underdog – at least on the international stage. Let’s face it, having an African director on a Disney+ film about a celebrated NBA player of African descent, but in Greece, sounds far-fetched. 

Rise was shot in Athens, showing authentic communities where migrants have settled. Before filming began, Omotoso spent time walking around the city, looking to capture the essence of Athens and the streets where the Antetokounmpo family lived and worked.

“What was important for me is to use the real locations – for example the basketball scene where Giannis picked up the ball for the first time, or the scene where he slept on the basketball court, that’s the real basketball court,” he says. 

The eldest brother Francis was in Athens at the time of filming and he and the rest of the Antetokounmpo family consulted closely with Omotoso and the Rise crew, ensuring the authenticity of their story. Antetokounmpo is also executive producer on the film. 

In the film, we learn the Antetokounmpo name was misspelt by Greek authorities – it should be Adetokunbo, a Yoruba surname meaning “a king has returned from across the seas”.

Omotoso not only directs the movie, he plays Bamidele, the shifty landlord. He adds his own touches to the character. “In the script, Bamidele doesn’t speak Pidgin (the Nigerian colloquial dialect that mixes local languages with English), so I changed that,” says Omotoso. “Everyone has to audition; no one just gets the role,” he adds. 

Omotoso is living in Los Angeles at the moment and promoting Rise but he says he isn’t planning to relocate to the United States. He will be continuing to act, direct and write, as well as prioritise his work through his production company AKINESTHETIC. 

  • Rise is currently streaming on Disney+.