Behind The Scenes

Latest 30 for 30 documentary reflects on Ole Miss football, civil rights

Wright Thompson the ESPN writer, says: “I’d always rather write a piece because I’m in complete control of it.”

Wright Thompson the “30 for 30” documentary film maker, says: “With the documentary, I am responsible for something I don’t have authority over.”

Fortunately for Thompson — and viewers — he’s serves in both capacities for tonight’s “Ghosts of Ole Miss” premiere on ESPN (8 p.m. ET).

“That said, the process was also much easier, since [Peabody Award-winning] director Fritz Mitchell and [producer] Wendy Yamano did the heavy lifting,” Thompson said. “My responsibilities involved writing and voicing it, which is the fun part of story telling. I may have also carried a tripod once.” 

Ghosts of Ole Miss is based off the Mississippi native’s 2009 feature. It chronicles the 1962 Rebel football team’s undefeated season against the backdrop of the integration of the University of Mississippi.

Front Row caught up with Mitchell and Thompson to get their thoughts on the documentary.

Who were you able to interview for the film? What did their interviews and perspectives bring to the film?
Mitchell: The way I rounded up interviews was to focus on a mixture of football players, students in the riots, a former governor, a reporter, school administrators, James Meredith, an author, some military people and some current Ole Miss staff in order to advance the story.

Each interviewee fits somewhere in the category of football, civil rights or generalist. Obviously, there is a lot of crossover. Because of the severity of the riots, the events are still pretty fresh in peoples’ minds.

One of the interview subjects, William Doyle, wrote the definitive book on the riots called An American Insurrection. In his book, he put you in every corner of the campus during the riots. Wright Thompson’s story is effective that way as well. I tried to emulate that.

Most of the interview subjects were really fun to talk with because they lived through such an interesting, albeit painful period in American history. The 1962 team was difficult at times because their season has been so overshadowed by the integration of the university. While each player was friendly and gracious with his time, I felt like they would rather be talking about football than the riots. Sam Owen, a guard on the team, said “it was like pulling a scab off an old wound.” Mississippi has been portrayed poorly in Hollywood films so there is a natural wariness when one starts asking questions that involve race.

This is your second 30 for 30 film. What draws you to stories like these?
Mitchell: It’s hard for me to put a finger on why I am drawn to stories in the South. I like places that feel different in a country where so much seems the same. The people are incredibly friendly and genuine. It’s a region that’s seen so much conflict. Southerners are wonderful story tellers and Wright falls in that tradition. Between story, landscape and having the opportunity to work with Wright, I was very fortunate.

Why do you think that team’s story has been forgotten over the years?
Thompson: Because so many events of that year regarding integration bring such shame to the state, there’s a desire to want to leave it in the past. It’s impossible to discuss that team without discussing the events of the fall, so I think, perhaps without realizing, both were left to collect dust.

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