EXCLUSIVE: Basketball legend and activist Jaci McCormack has teamed up with award-winning writer Erica Tremblay (Little Chief, Yellow Bird) of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation to pen Rise Above, a feature film about the challenges and triumph and how her love of basketball protected and elevated her through it all.
The film will be directed by Dennis Lee (Fireflies in the Garden) and produced by his Atomic Features partner Daniel Ragussis (Imperium), and Tremblay. Basketball Hall of Fame players Lenny Wilkens and Gary Payton, Hollywood icon Danny Glover, and longtime civil rights activist Gus Newport will executive produce.
“Jaci’s story is an incredible example of Native empowerment, and I was drawn to her personal journey,” said Tremblay. “There is a real lack of Indigenous representation in film and television and Jaci’s story is exactly what is needed. We need to see members of our communities achieve greatness,” continued Tremblay.
Raised on the Nez Perce reservation by her grandparents, McCormack, a basketball prodigy, had her life turned upside down when a tragic killing rocked her community. McCormack went on to lead the Illinois State Redbirds to an NCAA Tournament Berth, with a legendary game-winning turnaround jumper that was featured on ESPN’s “Play of the Day.” After college, McCormack founded Rise Above, a non-profit organization that employs health and wellness strategies using sports, culture, and music to educate, empower, and mentor Native American youth.
“My story demonstrates that while it isn’t easy to break barriers, it is possible,” said McCormack. “Representation matters when it comes to Native youth, because my story is their story. I feel extremely grateful to have found filmmakers like Erica, Dennis and Daniel that I can trust to tell this story; Erica understands the importance of indigenous representation in film, and she wholeheartedly believes in the social movement this project will support. Through this film and beyond, the work of Rise Above to empower and inspire our future generations will continue.”
“Jaci has an inspiring story that needs to be told, and it’s so important that we share it with the world,” said Wilkens. “Her story provides hope for kids; they need to see that Jaci did it—she made it. And if she can do it, maybe I can do it too.” Said Payton, “As someone who’s been there from day one of Jaci’s non-profit, I know first-hand the kind of impact her story will have on Native youth.” Stated Glover, “Stories have tremendous value in defining who we are, and this is why Jaci’s story is so essential, not only to the American Indian and First Nations community, but to all of us.”
“Like Jaci, I grew up with one foot planted in one world, the other foot planted in another,” said Lee. “As an Asian American, I’ve struggled with uniting these two halves into a whole that’s authentic and true to me. Jaci too has faced those challenges, but as a Native American who’s also one of the best women to play the game of basketball,” reflected Lee.
“I’m thrilled to have been entrusted by Jaci, Erica, and Dennis to produce this very special film. We hope it can make an outsized impact not only through the power of its story, but also by the way it’s being developed and financed, with direct support from the Native community. It’s our goal that this becomes a powerful new model for filmmaking,” said Ragussis.
Elizabeth A. Bell (Wind River), a co-founder of Gateway Entertainment, a non-profit dedicated to creating behind-the-camera career opportunities for underserved communities, will executive produce. Grammy award-winning Portugal. The Man, who also won the Legend Award at the Native American Music Awards and has a long history of activism in support of Indigenous communities, will serve as musical advisors and consultants. Most of the production will be shot in and around Indian country with financial support from various Tribes and a commitment to hiring Native cast and crew.
Chairman Willie Frank III of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, Phil Haugen, Member of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians and Chief Operating Officer of the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority, and Rebecca Miles, Member of the Nez Perce Tribe and Operations Director at the Potlach Fund, will also serve as executive producers, along with the non-profit Rise Above’s co-founder, Brad Meyers. Rise Above is a co-production of McCormack’s Esky Bibble Productions and Atomic Features. Tremblay is repped by WME and Ragna Nervik; Lee, Ragussis and Atomic Features are repped by Goodman, Genow, Schenkman, Smelkinson & Christopher.
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