The snapshot is historic and instantly recognizable. Black U.S. medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos holding their gloved fists aloft on the winners’ platform as the national anthem played.
Filmmakers Glenn Kaino and Afshin Shahidi spent seven years documenting the story behind the moment, which resonates still. “Colin Kaepernick had not taken a knee yet. There was not a huge movement in terms of supporting athlete protests,” Kaino, a conceptual artist and former chief creative officer for Napster who met Shahidi on a commercial shoot for disruptive music service, tells Yahoo Entertainment.
The resulting documentary, With Drawn Arms, is a powerfully depicted deep-dive into the story of Tommie Smith, the record-breaking track star who won the 200-meter gold medal at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, only to suffer decades of consequences for his Black Power salute protesting racism and injustice during the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the height of the civil rights movement. Smith became an inspiration for athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, who in recent years have used their platforms to take a stand against police brutality targeting Black people in America.
“My running became my voice,” Smith says in the film. “Black athletes were expected to perform, and shut up, but I wanted to do something different so I could serve those who didn’t have a platform.” His statement echoes the words of Kaepernick, who responded to critics who claim “a millionaire has no right complaining about America” with similar sentiments of giving voice to the voiceless.
“I would not want to take anything away from what Colin has done himself, but certainly, there was an inspiration and lineage,” says Kaino, who along with Shahidi helped facilitate a meeting between the two that’s capture in the film. “I think they do feel a strong kinship to each other.”
With Drawn Arms traces the life of Smith, now 76, from his childhood as one of 12 children in a Texas family to their move to central California to his track stardom at San Jose State to that fateful moment on the Olympic stage that changed his life forever. Smith was loudly booed by the stadium crowd after making his salute, and says he feared for his life in that moment.
The aftermath only proved tougher for Smith. Though he had brief stint in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, the stigma of his actions followed him everywhere. His mother was sent feces and dead animals in the mail, and he blamed himself for her death when she later suffered a heart attack. He had trouble finding work, and the psychological toll of the backlash affected his marriage and relationships. “He paid a tremendous price as a result,” says Shahidi, a film industry vet whose cinematography credits include Mallrats, D3: The Mighty Ducks and A Simple Plan, and who was the personal photographer to Prince.
Unlike Kaepernick, who was ostensibly blackballed by the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem during the 2016 season, there was not vocal public or social media support for Smith at the time, nor a lucrative Nike deal. But the vitriolic backlash directed towards Smith and Kaepernick illustrates how long the political actions of Black athletes have angered white critics. (U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who appears in the doc, says she has never faced the type of hatred that Smith and Kaepernick encountered despite also making headlines for kneeling during the national anthem.)
“I think when an athlete makes a stand, it ruptures the entire set of racist expectations from which this country was founded upon,” Kaino says. “I think sports teams and sports players, and even the concept of owners, is a propagation of slavery … one’s person’s right over another person to serve for entertainment value. And when an athlete chooses to use his platform to express themselves, what happens is it humanizes the athlete and it lets the world know that we’re actually a person, not an avatar, and we’re not actually owned. … There’s this long history where white people think that they own all the fruits of the labor and all the talent and all of the expression for every person of color and every marginalized group. And this is the central colonialism from which this country was built.”
Shahidi likens the uproar over Black athletes protesting to a scene in Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 drama Do the Right Thing, when John Turturro’s racist pizza shop employee refers to his heroes Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy and Prince as “more than Black.”
“So when athletes protests,” Shahidi says, “It’s reminding these viewers who they really are, and maybe it’s just too much for them to either comprehend or accept.”
After decades of criticism, Smith has finally begun to be recognized for his pioneering stand against injustice. He was given the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2008 Espy Award. In 2018, he received the Dresden Peace Prize. Artists (including Kaino) have built sculptures and painted murals of him all over the world. And just this month, Smith was honored on a limited-edited Wheaties box. (Some have yet to be moved, however. The International Olympic Committee announced in 2020 that athletes were banned from any sort of “political, religious or racial” demonstration.)
The now-iconic image of Smith’s raised fist, though, has been immortalized as a symbol of social justice, one that changed the world.
“It had a different meaning for everybody, but for me as a young Iranian kid, when I first saw it in seventh grade, it spoke to me of defiance,” Shahidi says. “And all I could do was imagine, what would’ve happened to someone in Iran if they stood up and performed anything close to that type of a protest. … That was Tommy, a young man on a worldwide stage willing to stand up and speak for what he believed was right. And what changes need to be made.
“So I think the way it changed the world by giving other people the impetus and the right and the belief that they could also use their voice in whatever way, with whatever size platform that they have.”
With Drawn Arms is now streaming on Starz.
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