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A Conversation with The President

A behind-the-scenes look at President Obama’s town hall at N.C. A&T

ESPN Films documentary tells the story of this historical moment


For ESPN Films’ Kenan K. Holley, his appreciation for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) runs deep. A native of Houston, Holley grew up in a household of HBCU academics.

His father, Dannye Holley, was the dean of Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law. His mother, Joyce Holley, was head of TSU’s accounting department, and his sister, Danielle, is currently the dean of Howard’s Law School.

 “As a kid, my elementary school was in Houston’s Third Ward, right across from TSU,” Holley said. “Every day after school my sister, brother and I would sit in class with my parents as they taught,” said Holley, who attended Duke University on a football scholarship. “I’ve been HBCU-educated since I was 6.”

Holley’s first HBCU film project was directing Redemption Song, the film from Spike Lee Lil Joints about Howard University’s 1971 and 1974 NCAA national championship soccer teams. Holley’s latest directorial short, A Conversation with the President, allows viewers to see the making of The Undefeated’s town hall meeting with President Barack Obama, which took place Oct. 11 at North Carolina A&T State University.

The film shows the process from the blended perspectives of ESPN executives, the White House, and an N.C. A&T student who got to ask a question at the town hall meeting. “I never usually get starstruck, but this opportunity was a little different,” explained Holley, who has directed and produced a number of ESPN films, including 40 Minutes of Hell, Dominique Belongs To Us and Snoop & Son: A Dad’s Dream. “This is the first black president,” he said. “In meeting President Obama backstage, I ceased to be a filmmaker for a moment and became just an admirer. Then I had to pull myself together.”

Said Kevin Merida, senior vice president and editor-in-chief of The Undefeated: “It’s easy for the best of stories to get lost in today’s fast-paced news cycle. We didn’t want that to happen with this event, and with this president. That’s why it was so important for us to do this short film to give our audience a feel for how this town hall came together. I’m glad we decided to do it.”

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.