Globetrotting filmmaker Thomas Morgan’s latest project finds him close to home, capturing an unlikely tale of Queens University heroes.
by Michael J. Solender
In early April, Charlotte documentary filmmaker Thomas Morgan was on the road in Athens, Tenn., filming at the home of Queens University of Charlotte’s men’s rugby player, Martin Pierce. Despite stay-at-home orders, he wasn’t too concerned about traveling during a pandemic.
“Having filmed in Beirut, Lebanon, during a war and in post-earthquake ravaged Nepal,” Morgan says, “I’m used to working in difficult situations.”
His film subjects often overcome long odds, and he loves to tell how they use their adversity as motivation to achieve great things for others. His 2017 film Soufra was a feature-length documentary showcasing social entrepreneur Mariam Shaar and her sisterhood of refugee women as they secured a food truck for their fledgling catering business inside Beirut’s infamous Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp. The film was an official selection for Positive Cinema Week at the Cannes Film Festival. Morgan’s critically acclaimed and award-winning documentary Waiting for Mamu chronicled 2012 CNN Hero of the Year Pushpa Basnet’s struggle to educate and house orphaned children of imprisoned mothers. Susan Sarandon served as executive producer on both films.
“I’m drawn to subjects that are often marginalized and people who don’t have an opportunity for their voice to be heard,” Morgan says. “I’m humbled they allow me into their space and always ask them, ‘What do you hope we can accomplish?’ Invariably, the response is something to serve others and not themselves.”
Morgan’s latest project is much closer to home. Scrum follows Frank McKinney, the men’s rugby head coach at Queens University of Charlotte. One of the only African American head rugby coaches in U.S. college athletics, McKinney led his team to the 2019 USA Rugby Men’s Division II National Championship title.
“Frank was the first person I met when I moved to Charlotte in 1994,” says Morgan, a former real-estate executive who gave up corporate life to follow his filmmaking passion. McKinney worked in financial services. “We knew each other then as corporate guys,” Morgan says. “I always felt it wasn’t him, he wasn’t enthusiastic about it. Yet when he came to Queens, I thought, ‘Finally, he’s found his passion. This is really going to take off for him.’”
At the beginning of the 2019 season, Morgan began coming to practices to film his friend and capture his work with the team.
“[The team was] good,” Morgan says. “Frank kept emphasizing how important he felt it was for these kids to ‘win at life,’ much more so than winning on the field. I saw his whole intention and how he was using rugby to change people’s lives in a similar way to the way I was using film to change people’s lives. It was like looking in a mirror. For some of these kids, they are the first generation of their family going to college. Sports are such a great metaphor for life, and this story allows for the unfolding of remarkable challenges and accomplishments.”
The film follows the unlikely journey of 35 young men as they navigate twists and turns of financial aid, campus life, demanding academics and grueling practice sessions in their quest to achieve a national title. Scrum reveals how McKinney’s team accomplished the three goals he set for their season: A 3.0 GPA for the team, zero disciplinary issues on and off the field, and winning the championship.
What began for Morgan as a “sizzle reel” capturing unscripted moments as a keepsake for a friend blossomed into a documentary film project Morgan hopes to package into a cable television miniseries. At press time, he was in conversations with several distributors.
“Tom has a way of finding uplifting and motivating elements in stories of underdogs,” McKinney says. “He’s remarkable in assembling all these disparate puzzle pieces into a compelling and inspiring story. I’m humbled he’s sharing our journey.” SP