After more than 50 years, Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Tommie Smith shared the full story behind his raised-fist salute atop the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in the documentary “With Drawn Arms” — and, by doing so, offers a greater insight into the meaning behind his silent protest and its aftermath.
In observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, CAA hosted a virtual conversation with Smith and filmmakers Afshin Shahidi and Glenn Kaino. The film — which is among the 240 projects that have qualified for the Oscars Best Documentary Feature race — details the legacy of Smith’s fist-raising gesture after winning the gold medal in the 200 meter race, reflecting on the domino effect his protest had both personally and on the next generation of athlete activists, like Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe (both of whom are featured in the doc).
More from Variety
“It feels great to be part of a group of people, of the younger generation, that want to tell this story as it really meant to me. The artistic value of it is immeasurable and I’m proud to be blessed with that,” Smith tells Variety, praising the filmmakers for their efforts.
“I feel very gratified sitting and chatting with people who want to know the story, want to hear the story maker, and ideally, trying to adapt acute suggestions to what really happened,” Smith continues. “The difference is they’re talking to the history of what happened, not the historical attitude of what might have happened.”
Smith can still remember what it felt like getting up on the victory stand, from the first step onto the podium to throwing both arms up and doing a military turn to the right to face the flag, holding his black gloved fist clenched high above his head.
“I don’t think too many people understand that feeling, especially [considering] what was happening in those times. Was I scared? I was mixed up, I was scared, I was crying, I was unhappy, I was happy, a whole lot of things,” he explains. “But what we’re doing in ‘With Drawn Arms’ is an artistic adaptation of what really happened; It’s a story of my life. I’ve lived with that for 52 years and, within the last seven years, I’m just now telling the story.”
In diving into Smith’s story, the film considers a few questions: What is an athlete’s role in fighting for social causes? What happens after an athlete becomes an activist? And why can’t society allow them to be both?
But are times changing? LeBron James was told to “shut up and dribble” in 2018, but, in August, the NBA players initiated a strike in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among others. In contrast, Colin Kaepernick — who first began kneeling in protest of police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem in 2016 — is still largely excommunicated from the NFL. Kaepernick appears in the film having a meeting with Smith, while Rapinoe also gives an interview, noting the marked difference between the way her kneeling protests and outspoken nature have been received by the public at large.
Also appearing in the film are sports journalists Jemele Hill and Brent Musburger, Georgia Senator-elect Rev. Raphael Warnock and the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who all contextualize the larger ramifications Smith’s actions have had on sports and society.
“Being able to capture Congressman Lewis before he passed was one of, if not the highlight of [this experience],” Kaino recalls. “In terms of just the overwhelming wisdom and connectivity of his interpretation of that event, having been on the frontlines in the Civil Rights Movement in 1968.”
Lewis reflected on the salute coming in the months after Dr. King’s assassination, a tremendous year of despair for the future congressman and his compatriots.
“He explained to us how Tommie’s salute with John Carlos towards the latter half of the year really was the redeeming scene of the entire year,” Kaino continues. “If ’68 was anything like what we just went through [in 2020], to have a moment of brilliance and sacrifice and such honesty as Tommie and John coming towards the end of such a rough moment. To hear Congressman Lewis talk about that, and the passion with which he spoke, was definitely the most moving part of it.”
The documentary made its world premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October, honored with the Film of Conflict & Resolution Award, given to a title that deals with issues and societal effects of war and violence. EGOT-winner John Legend served as an executive producer on the doc, as well as actor and activist Jesse Williams.
“This film is important, when you think of history providing context for understanding the current movement,” Legend said during a November conversation about the film for Metrograph. “Backlash isn’t new, it isn’t without history and without predecessors and I think this film is so important in showing people what that history is and whose footsteps Colin and LeBron and other athletes are walking in. We are telling the story of Tommie doing something so revolutionary and important and it helps provide historical context for understanding what is happening in America right now.”
As for what Shahidi and Kaino hope audiences take away from the film, the filmmakers say that Smith’s story has the potential to teach many lessons about how to use whatever platform you have to be as impactful as can be.
“One of them is to stand up and speak for what’s right, no matter the size of your platform. Everyone has a voice. And I think Tommie bravely showed how to use it,” Shahidi says. “And then his message at the very end, especially where we are now in this country, I think this message of unity.”
He continues: “I have three three young kids [sons Sayeed and Ehsan, and daughter “Grown-ish” and “Black-ish” star Yara Shahidi]. Part of the reason I wanted to do this was for them to see something, to empower them to speak up, to activate and do whatever they can for what they know is right.”
While there might never be another King, Smith or Kaepernick, the filmmakers hope there will be an athlete, musician, artist, pastor, or even accountant who comes along, who “fights their entire life to achieve greatness, and at the pinnacle of their success, looks out into the world and decides that there are ways for it to be more fair and more just, and decides to take a stand so that others may be inspired to share in their sacrifice and fight for one another.”
“Part of what we wanted to do is show is that Tommie was a complicated man and not just an image that we had all referenced as sort of a symbol,” Kaino adds. “I think it’s also important because when people right now are making sacrifices — whether it’s Colin Kaepernick or LeBron James who speaks up — I think it’s easy to critique if we don’t consider people and the full brunt of their humanity.”
“Hopefully what this shows is that Tommie endured a great sacrifice for all of us,” Kaino concludes. “I hope that people pay that forward and continue to tell that story, so that his impact has a lasting impact and that sacrifice pays off in bigger ways.”
“With Drawn Arms” is now streaming in Starz.
Best of Variety