As a Japanese-American kid growing up in Los Angeles, Glenn Kaino was drawn to the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing with arms raised on the podium of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, during the medal presentation for the 200-meter dash. Not that he saw “the salute” live; he wasn’t yet born. But that’s how iconic the image of the two track-and-field stars had become. As an artist and the co-director of “With Drawn Arms” — streaming now — Kaino took that memory, sought Smith out and began a collaboration that led to a 2018 art exhibit and to this moving and relevant documentary.
It’s easy to see why the artist was taken with the image. There is sculptural beauty in that still life of Black protest. Smith’s black-gloved hand and right arm are raised; Carlos’s gloved hand and left arm are raised, creating, as Smith recounts, an arch — a bridge between the two men but also the roiling world of that era. Their bowed heads speak eloquently of the solemnity of the moment. The pose is quietly defiant — but also brims with grace.
Only some were not having it. It’s startling — wounding, even — to hear the boos that rained down as the two medalists walked off the field on Oct. 17, 1968. In the months leading up to the games, the Black athlete-led Olympic Project for Human Rights had been tussling with a boycott. The competitors had been warned by the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic committee that there were to be no political protests.
Brent Musburger was the first reporter to talk with them afterward. (The wonderfully bombastic Howard Cosell followed.) Though he’d spoken with the two about why they’d done what they did, Musburger wrote this for a Chicago newspaper: “Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of black-skinned storm troopers.” His appearance in the doc is the closest the now 81-year-old has gotten to an apology.
Kaino and co-director Afshin Shahidi do a rich job of capturing not only that moment (Smith delivers a terrific play-by-play of the race and the heat before) but also what led up to it, and what was its punishing aftermath — all of which would make it an impactful double-bill with “The Australian Dream,” about a similar gesture by Oz football star Adam Goodes. The film also documents Kaino’s quest to represent the act, to reclaim and reframe its force in art. In 2018, the “With Drawn Arms” exhibition opened at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Smith lives nearby with his wife, Delois, who was instrumental in pulling the gold medalist from a very dark place.
Perhaps conspicuous for his absence is Carlos, whose “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World” — co-written with David Zirin — was published in 2011. But “With Drawn Arms” is Smith’s story, with all the biographical side trips that suggests: his broken marriages, his bumpy fatherhood, his battle with alcohol and despair. A vivid animated sequence unfolds as Smith and Delois share the story of a rock-bottom moment in which a tormented Smith wrote on the walls with his own blood.
Delois and Tommie were friends before they married. She saw the incident as a crucible and acted accordingly: She took him to his childhood home of Lemoore, Ca. Something in him got re-centered. Far from taking the doc off course, the personal details underline a fact reinforced by a number of the interviewees: In this nation, the intersection of sports and race is an especially busy, even harrowing, one.
Not surprisingly, the movie spends time on Colin Kaepernick’s professional fate since taking a knee during the 2016 football season. Soccer star Megan Rapinoe offers an eloquent critique of the former quarterback’s treatment and her own after taking a knee in solidarity. Among the commentators linking Smith and Carlos’ demonstration with our thorny moment: sportswriter and culture commentator Jamele Hill; cultural critic Nelson George and the late John Lewis, the latter making his always persuasive case for the moral imperative of human rights protests.
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