Directed by Fritz Mitchell
Written & Narrated by Wright Thompson
The most joyous part of the ESPN 30 for 30 series is the ability to walk into and discover stories that are dramatically impactful, socially relevant, and ultimately intimately linked to the world of sports. When I first decided to start into this marathon, I knew I would be on a great journey; sports and film are to of my very favorite things. I also realized that there would be instances where I was left wanting by the craft of the filmmaker; teases, if you will, where the potential of the story far exceeds the execution of the film. The Ghosts of Ole Miss is one of those films. So enticingly fascinating, and yet so far from a fully realized documentary.
My knowledge of Ole Miss football is as follows: Eli Manning (and I guess Archie Manning as well, though I obviously never saw him play), and Robert Nkemdiche, the #1 overall prospect that recently signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Mississippi, surprising more than a few college football fans. I did not know about the 1962 Ole Miss team, the only undefeated, untied team in the school’s history. What makes that team even more significant than its record is the social climate surrounding the university that year. I did know about racial tensions and the integration that was taking place around the same time in many southern schools and colleges. I did not know of the connection between the two.
Thanks to Wright Thompson, a born and bred Mississippi journalist, that connection is made and examined in this installment of the 30 for 30 series. Director Fritz Mitchell takes Thompson’s piece on the 1962 team and transforms it into a documentary film led by Thompson himself. The civil movement era in the American south is one of the more interesting and explosive eras in this countries history. I can see why Thompson would want to reflect on these strange times and strange actions that took place within his home state. The idea of white guilt and Southern racism then and now are matters that should always be remembered and thought about by all who experienced it, and even those generations later who did not.
The problem the film faces is that it becomes a personal lament on the state of hometown Mississippi by Wright Thompson. Where his words of examination and thoughts of inward expression could make a great thinkpiece for a newspaper or news magazine, it does not lend itself too well to a documentary film. Part of the problem is found in the ambitions of the director, Mitchell. The story is there without a doubt, and moments like the chronicle of the campus riot after African American James Meredith attempted to be enrolled at the university proves it. But you know what, this is the first time in this review that I have mentioned Meredith’s name. There is a reason for that.
The film itself feels like dipping a toe into an Olympic sized pool and not getting the chance to ever jump in and swim around. We learn who James Meredith is, yet we never really get to spend much time with him, or find out more about his thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences. We learn about a few of the football players, and their magical season, but we never get an in depth look at what made them so great, what made their season so magical apart from circumstance. And as a film that is part of series designed to explore important moments in sports history and its social relevance, the film turns out to be an outright failure. We get the tease of a great story, but merely skim its surface to learn the most basic facts, to know that something happened in Oxford, Mississippi in 1962, but never to learn much more than that.