Behind The ScenesESPN FilmsThe Undefeated

Go inside The Undefeated’s behind-the-scenes short film
A Conversation With The President

Mark Wright (Photo courtesy of Mark Wright/Tim Roller Photography)
Mark W. Wright
(Tim Roller Photography)

The historic nature of convening a town hall between President Barack Obama and African-American students is not lost on Editor-in-Chief Kevin Merida and his editorial team at The Undefeated.

The Oct. 11 town hall – A Conversation with The President: Sports, Race and Achievement – at North Carolina A&T State University, was, in fact, the first event of its kind to be televised on national television.

Director of Special Projects for The Undefeated Mark W. Wright and ESPN Films producer Kenan K. Holley chronicle President Obama’s town hall in a documentary short housed on The Undefeated platform. Wright discussed the project, which Holley directed, with Front Row.

How was this idea conceived?
In the weeks leading up to the town hall, we had already sketched out a robust editorial plan. In one of our planning sessions with Kevin Merida, we talked about how important it was that the event didn’t just come and go quickly, particular coming off of our Chicago town hall. I suggested a behind-the-scenes, making-of type video story our audience could really grab ahold of. Kevin loved the idea and it was off to the races after that.

How many hours were involved in the shoot and how did you choose what to include?
Kenan Holley is a brilliant storyteller. We felt it was important to shoot our student in front of the Woolworth’s in Greensboro – a catalyst to the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. We shot the interviews the day of the town hall. We captured scenics on campus the day before. It was definitely a bit of a fire drill, but it worked out – and, on the fly we made some decisions to keep the project going.

In our pre-interviews with her, she exuded humility and passion at the same time. She has such a dynamic story.
– Mark Wright on the decision to focus on North Carolina A&T student activist Nhawndie Smith’s perspective

Why did you choose to tell most of the story through North Carolina A&T student activist Nhawndie Smith’s eyes?
In hindsight, we look really smart using Nhawndie as our main subject – but in reality, featuring her was a no-brainer. In our pre-interviews with her, she exuded humility and passion at the same time. She has such a dynamic story. When we heard Nhawndie’s story, we agreed she would be an ideal subject.

Describe the collaboration with ESPN Films on this project.
[Executive Vice President, Global Strategy & Original Content] Marie Donoghue, who oversees The Undefeated, is a strong proponent of using video and leaning on ESPN Films expertise to tell impactful stories. The Spike Lee Lil Joint series is housed on our site. When Kevin approached ESPN Films executives John Dahl and Libby Geist about the idea, they supported it from the very beginning. The relationship made working with Kenan Holley – who also directed “Redemption Song” – seamless.

What’s next for The Undefeated in terms of documentary shorts?
We churn out video on the regular, particularly for the HBCU vertical, which is where I mostly live. We have some really talented people at the Undefeated who lead our overall video efforts. [Deputy editor, Digital Innovation for The Undefeated] Latoya Peterson is our champion. Caleb Wilkerson, who leads original video production for us, never sleeps.

But our next big project is a video-and-text series following the Howard University men’s basketball team throughout the 2016-17 season as we attempt to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 25 years. Yes, I said “we” because that’s my alma mater.

Our team is led by senior James Daniel, the leading scorer in major college basketball last season, who is on a quest to become the first Howard grad to reach the NBA. You didn’t expect me to leave out my school, did you?

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