WhatsApp commissions first entertainment project, a film featuring Nigerian NBA star

Titled “Naija Odyssey,” the 12-minute film tells the origin story of Milwaukee Bucks NBA player Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis Antetokounmpo looks on during a FIBA EuroBasket game in Milan on Sept. 8, 2022.Mattia Ozbot / Getty Images file

WhatsApp, the popular messaging app owned by tech giant Meta, is bowing its first original entertainment project later this month — a short film featuring NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo, born in Greece to Nigerian parents, was named the 2021 NBA All-Star MVP and led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA Finals title that year. In the 12-minute film, titled “Naija Odyssey,” the pro basketballer “tells his origin story of many origins as he reconciles his roots, birthplace and sense of belonging between cross-cultural worlds,” according to WhatsApp’s description. The athlete inked an endorsement deal with WhatsApp in February of this year.

Narrated by Antetokounmpo and his mother, Veronica, “Naija Odyssey” is loosely based on the classic Greek epic poem “The Odyssey,” depicting different moments in his life. “In Greece, my teachers told stories of travelers battling the sea, fighting to find their way home — to find themselves,” Antetokounmpo says in the voiceover for the film’s trailer (watch below). “I was on that same journey.”

“Naija Odyssey” is directed by filmmakers Nono Ayuso and Rodrigo Inada and edited by Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, who won the 2021 Oscar for film editing for Amazon Studios’ “Sound of Metal.” WhatsApp will release the film on Sept. 21 on its social media channels, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.

Why did WhatsApp commission the film? The project is really a piece of branded content seeking to capitalize on Antetokounmpo’s worldwide fame and communicate the message that WhatsApp can bring people together. “‘Naija Odyssey’ is a story that reinforces how WhatsApp helps us embrace our multifaceted lives,” said Vivian Odior, WhatsApp’s global head of marketing. “In navigating relationships, identity, and even adversity, WhatsApp is there — enabling you to embrace all sides of you by connecting you to those who matter most.”

The uplifting message of “Naija Odyssey” appears in part designed to counter the narrative that WhatsApp has helped fuel the spread of misinformation and furthered societal divisions — which in some cases has led to real-world violence.

Meta (formerly Facebook) acquired mobile messaging app WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion. WhatsApp now has more than 2 billion monthly users. The WhatsApp deal is cited in the FTC’s pending antitrust lawsuit against its parent company, with the agency alleging that the acquisition was part of Facebook’s anticompetitive modus operandi to buy up potential competitors. Meta has said the FTC’s claims are “an effort to rewrite antitrust laws and upend settled expectations of merger review.”