EXCLUSIVE: It took almost four years — and the death of George Floyd and ensuing protests — for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to acknowledge how badly football fumbled a chance to support the concerns of its players of color over police brutality, poverty and economic disparity in America, when QB Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem. Kaepernick and players who followed his lead were excoriated by President Trump, with Kaepernick not being offered a place on a team after he left the San Francisco 49ers.
The duration of Kaepernick’s hardship hardly compares to the 52 years of adversity endured by Tommie Smith. After winning the gold medal in the 200 meters at the 1968 Summer Olympics, Smith stunned the crowd in Mexico City — and the world watching on live TV — by thrusting his black-gloved right fist in the air during the playing of the national anthem (bronze medal-winning teammate John Carlos did the same with his left hand). What Smith called a “silent protest” got misconstrued as a radical Black Power salute. Both athletes were expelled and sent home by a U.S. Olympic Committee that tried unsuccessfully to strip their medals. Smith was subsequently rendered a pariah, even hounded by FBI agents as he tried to make a living as a track coach. It wasn’t until 2019 that the USOC did an about face and put Smith into its Hall of Fame. There is direct connective tissue in the sprinter’s sacrifice to Kaepernick, and those who are peacefully protesting the murder of Floyd, thrusting their fists in the air as a symbol of injustice.
After living most of his subsequent life in obscurity, Smith was finally poised to have a new platform to stand on, and explain the meaning behind his silent protest, when the documentary With Drawn Arms was poised to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, with a subsequent theatrical berth and ceremonies to take place surrounding the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. All those plans, and for that matter Tribeca and the Olympic Games, got canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
While I am hearing that TV producers are already buzzing around the George Floyd story and looking to make rights deals to tell a story that has become so culturally significant it has pushed a pandemic to the background, the Smith docu is a gem that is finished and ready to be seen. CAA Media Finance agents this week began shopping a film that isn’t solely about Smith, but the impact that its filmmakers had in making some of the track star’s dreams come true, in hopes of correcting an historical injustice. What Glenn Kaino (a conceptual artist) and Afshin Shahidi (a cinematographer and Prince’s longtime photographer) do with a plaster cast of Smith’s iconic right arm, and a separate silhouette sculpture, has to be seen to be fully appreciated.
I first watched the film before its planned Tribeca debut in March for a piece that got postponed, and spoke with Smith and the filmmakers last Friday. Hours later, NFL’s Goodell issued his mea culpa. Kaepernick appears briefly in the docu and the bond he shares with Smith is palpable, Black men who sacrificed for the worthy cause of awareness of racism. On Goodell’s move, Smith told Deadline: “You can run but you cannot hide. The truth shall set free those who have suffered for telling the truth and then accused for unjustified actions. Colin should be given to him what was lost during the time he was set idle. By the admission of wrongdoing, the NFL indicated strength of growth moving forward by the promise to hear the voices of all.”
The podium photo of Smith and Carlos became a signature symbol of the tumultuous 1960s. After locking the door to the press room, with Howard Cosell banging on the door from outside, the prominent columnist Brent Musberger got the first interview with Smith, and hastily dictated a story that described Smith’s gesture as akin to “black skinned storm troopers holding aloft their black gloved hands during the playing of the National Anthem…It’s destined to go down as the most unsubtle demonstration in the history of protests.” While Musberger expresses regret for that assessment in the docu, likening Smith to Hitler and Nazi hate cemented the historical misunderstanding of Smith.
Instead of a radical embrace of Black Power that shook up white America, Smith really tried to convey during the anthem that all was not right in America, not with the rampant racism, police brutality, poverty and lack of economic opportunity for African Americans. Here, Smith, Kaino and Shahidi describe the twisty road that finally has them poised to give Smith and his sacrifice a true moment.
DEADLINE: I just re-watched this superb docu again, and it strikes me as remarkable the lengths that Glenn and Afshim did to validate Tommie’s legacy after going to his house, knocking on the door and asking Smith and wife Delois to trust them. And then the pandemic hit and halted the film’s premiere. Describe how you all felt when your moment was upended.
GLENN KAINO: We worked so tirelessly and for so long with Tommie to tell his hero journey. But within the microcosm of us making the movie, we’ve had setbacks that we overcame, and so frankly COVID, the delaying of the Olympics by a year, and the Tribeca Film Festival cancellation we just took in stride, no running pun intended. Just another obstacle in front of us that we are determined to move beyond. Is that fair to say, Afshin?
AFSHIN SHAHIDI: Obviously, it would’ve been nice to have that moment for Tommie, but I think this film is so timely that regardless of a festival premiere, we’re really excited for people to see it.
DEADLINE: Tommie, with the way your gesture on that podium has been misunderstood and what it cost you, what led you to trust these filmmakers?
TOMMIE SMITH: Well, this guy who was unknown to me [Kaino] showed up at my front door, all I knew was my wife Delois verbally agreed to see him. [Delois made the filmmakers do three things if Smith said yes, and let’s just say that The Smithsonian, Barack Obama and Wheaties figure into the narrative]. And once Glenn started talking, I began to see the life which I had missed; it was already there but never put into any type of context, so I wanted to relive [my] truth from another direction. I said, this is going to work, no matter what mountains we’ll have to get around. I am just tickled…I won’t say pink. I’ll remain black, but I’m just tickled to do this.
DEADLINE: While the launch dreams were dashed, the film feels far more relevant with the events that have spurred protesters to action. And with no sports happening, appetite for sports documentaries is voracious, as the ratings on The Last Dance showed. Not a bad time to be shopping this movie.
KAINO: So, our plan all along was to be denied by a large-scale international pandemic and have a writer from Deadline come in and really help us take it through. In all seriousness, you can be very helpful and we’re very grateful for this moment. Afshin and I are both artists who’ve done some work in mainstream conventional Hollywood, but all of our mind-set and approach, as you saw in the film, comes from the artists’ perspective. The most important thing for us was to get the story right in a high-quality film. Not that we weren’t worried about distribution, but we decided that Tribeca was going to be that moment, and then when that went away with the pandemic. Like many other filmmaker friends, we had a four-day post-production path to make Tribeca because of clearance of rights, and legal. And then all of a sudden our color vendor went away, and our sound mixer went away, and our assistant editor went away, and so we had to really put together a COVID post team. It has taken a bit longer, but only this week are we at the point where we’re taking the movie out to go show distributors and set it up. From an artistic lens, we are already in discussions for exhibitions, for example in Japan. We were going to have a big exhibition in Japan this summer with the Olympics, but we will have an exhibition in Japan. The gallery just texted me last night that we will absolutely have a thing in Tokyo to launch this project. We have several museum engagements from now until then that we can use as cultural moments alongside us. We’re taking advantage of this moment to put the film out commercially.
SHAHIDI: What we love is the chance to give this man his due with all the reverberations. I probably get 20 texts a day showing someone with a salute on the street, from people who know that we’re working on the project. And the fellow that you see in the film who was standing next to me in the White House with President Obama? That’s our associate producer, Deon Jones. He is now making a big stand against police brutality because he was peacefully protesting and he was shot in the face with a rubber bullet…
KAINO: He’s been on CBS and all of these news mediums. The complication of these histories are all contributing to us having a moment.
DEADLINE: Tommie, your story is interwoven with Colin Kaepernick taking the knee. That became a subject of controversy when QB Drew Brees publicly disagreed and then apologized and publicly disagreed with President Trump’s admonition he had nothing to apologize about. You say in the film that people continue to misunderstand what you were trying to say when you got on that podium, the same as Kaepernick’s message was lost in a polarized reaction led by the White House. How did both messages get so misconstrued?
SMITH: Well, Colin’s knee and the Tommie Smith stand were in the same direction. [Mine] was in the ‘60s, when the mass media couldn’t grab you by the neck so quickly, like when Colin came along 50 years later. His was a different direction, but everything pointed toward reiterating the need for atrocities to stop and a new program to happen. We’ve seen these programs, and all of the protests that has been so visibly upsetting. But the hardcore here is that it’s a simple story. Work needs to be done, and my standing in ’68 has carried through to the point where the powers that be was changed to a positive direction, not just by Tommie Smith but the other people who saw what I did and reckoned within themselves. You recall it was the silent gesture heard around the world.
I didn’t throw a rock, and hide my hand. I just held a hand up for everybody to help…consciously to view the possibility of an ongoing positive. You see, that’s why it needs to be told from an artistic intellectual view and not just me running and holding a fist up and saying, I want to raise my fist and let’s do better. It goes much further than that, and you will see as time goes by how far it has gone and what it’s going to lead to. We’re already seeing what it’s leading to.
DEADLINE: Glenn, the very first thing you say in the movie is that a single image has the power to change the world by proving to you that something is possible. You show the picture of Michael Jordan high above the rim executing a dunk, but it’s impossible not to conflate your statement with the horrible video that we all saw in Minneapolis that has turned our country upside down. Tommie, back when you got on that podium things were much different. It was an angry time in general, with civil rights and the Vietnam War. Given what you’ve gone through, you are someone whose opinion matters here more than most. How do you process what happened in Minneapolis and after?
SMITH: Everything is not okay. It takes work to make an O and a K, to make okay. Therefore, work has to be done all through the system. We can’t take this one article and make a fact and a rule for [the people who read it]. It takes leadership to abide by the constitutional process of moving that way. I was blessed with a gift and I abide by that gift by helping people. And to help people I need a platform to move forward. This [film] gives me a platform. A lot of things that I haven’t said will be said through this movie.
DEADLINE: Winning the Olympic gold medal is the crowning moment of any track athlete’s career, and yours was even more remarkable in that you suffered a groin pull in a qualifying heat earlier in the day. You win, make your gesture, and the USOC sends you home and tries to take your medal and the bronze won by John Carlos. And we see how there was no hero’s welcome, and only a hard road through life that almost broke you. You say the stress caused your mom’s heart attack. What was the worst indignity you experienced, the highest price you made for making a stand that now so clearly puts you on the right side of history?
SMITH: Well. Mike, people viewed that as a negative, as an object against humanity, or against the flag. It was a platform. It was my platform, at that particular time, to speak to the public, to speak to the globe. It wasn’t indigency; it was a cry for freedom. I had no time to say anything. I was blessed with the gift that got me on that platform, to say something. Many people took it in a very slight-ful direction. It wasn’t meant to hurt anyone, only to educate those who need to understand that we need help. We still need help. We need a platform to say how that help can help us. We need any avenue that we can get nonviolently to make this happen. It must happen. We have to remove things that are malignant. We have to remove the mind-set of, I am one way, you are the other. If you just kind of pinched yourself and bleed, and I pinch myself beside you, my blood’s not going to be any different than yours. Pure speed on the track might be different but that’s about it.
DEADLINE: Was there something specific that galvanized your decision to make your stand? There was discussion with Harry Edwards about the team possibly boycotting; but what set your mind that you had to use your moment in that way?
SMITH: It was a responsibility, yes. It was [an opportunity to express] one of the highest voices of a movement that I had, which was athletics, but even in athletics I had to be academically qualified to continue, I had an avenue that a lot of people…a lot of kids who were probably as fast I was, didn’t have. I wanted to make sure that everybody heard what I had to say, without saying anything. And with my background of religious intent I had to find a way to make it soluble enough and for it to be nonviolent enough, that even those who disliked the message knew there was something that was said without hearing it. And then you made up your own mind. Those people made up their own minds about what was being said on that victory stand, and I’m still trying to explain that it’s very simple, we need each other, and how are we going to do that.
DEADLINE: The film explores how the press handled your victory. There was Brent Musburger, who was very prominent and introduced the stormtrooper imagery, which must have been very hurtful. What did his belated apology mean to you?
SMITH: Forty-nine years later, I realized that he was trying to keep a job, so he did what he had to do to maintain a position so he and his family could also survive. But that needed explaining, and it took 49 years for that to happen, an era. I cried when he [apologized] and he cried, started before I did. I understood why he did it, but I just didn’t agree with that method.
DEADLINE: Then there was Howard Cosell, banging on the door Musberger had locked, and he handled it differently, perhaps because he had been a supportive voice toward so much of what Muhammad Ali had gone through. His treatment toward you seemed somehow more graceful.
SMITH: Well. You know, Howard was an optimist with an attitude of, you listen to me and I’ll tell you how it’s going to be done, but his voice indicated that yes, I am Howard Cosell. I bring you the news. You listen to it and we’ll talk about it. Howard Cosell came to Oberlin College when I was the head track and field coach and on the faculty there, and we talked in the stands there about how things needed to be changed. He asked me, “Tommie, how do you think you’re going to change these things? You’re only a track coach.” And I looked at him with that serious look on my face and I said, “Well Howard, you are here. Why are you here? I must be important to somebody,” and then he said, “now don’t start boxing with me, Tommie. We don’t do that.” And that was fine. He told the story but stayed out of the way of the story moving forward, see. He was also a friend of mine, too. I liked Howard. I talked to his brother about six years ago.
DEADLINE: Tommie, you discuss the hard road presented you after making that stand and being ostracized. There is a particularly troubling moment in the film where you hit rock bottom, and it’s only the efforts of your wife that bring you out of it. Can you verbalize what was missing in your life that caused that extreme existential crisis?
SMITH: I hit a rock bottom when I thought the system left me living somebody else’s life and not doing anything that mattered. That was my life at that particular time because I had a family and I didn’t know how to deal with the openness of that. I did what I did in Mexico City. It almost cost me my life. It cost me a family. I had to rebuild, come through with something that I thought that was necessary to continue to make a stand, and that was my family connection. So my wife then put me in the car, drove me over 200 miles down to where my brothers, my dad, my mother, my sisters were, and dumped me in the midst of a real reality of life. Even before I got there, I saw the rows of fields that I used to work in. The cotton fields, grape fields, cornfields. And that rejuvenated me. I got lost in the passage of my life at that particular time. I needed to solidify where I was, who I was, and how I am going to continue to help the system. And in this movie, you will see that and how it is told artistically. And I will say to these guys, hurry up and get it out there, because I’m ready.
DEADLINE: They moved the Tokyo Olympics to summer 2021. You won the gold and you’ve coached many a runner. What kind of impact will that delay and this pandemic have on the favorites who were gearing up for this summer?
SMITH: I think it’s going to help a lot of kids who needed a year to get in shape to do this, but it’s too bad it was the pandemic that stopped it for that one year. The Olympic game is going to be as good as it was in 2020, and I applaud those kids who are standing by and saying, I’m still coming, I’m still going to work. That type of work is needed throughout the system. You don’t get everything the way you want it. You must work to provide an avenue so that what you don’t have will come.
DEADLINE: After the long hard road, what will make this film a success in your mind?
SMITH: Gee whiz. With Glenn, it has to do with having a hamburger patty with me when it’s over. And we’re inviting Afshin, too.
DEADLINE: And how about you guys?
SHAHIDI: I appreciate that. Thanks, Tommie.
KAINO: I think that the more we can help educate and connect Tommie’s sacrifice story to not only just the people on the streets that are there right now, but also to give a depth to the athletes who are in positions like Tommie who’ll have a platform. I think that will be a success for us. We’ve met a bunch of athletes along the way who know who Tommie was…I mean, know bits and pieces of Tommie’s story. But what we set out to do with this film was try to dimensional-ize him. So people understand that just because people have flat expectations for you as a professional athlete, as a champion, they might understand and appreciate the depth of the human character. We hope that this film emboldens more athletes to take a stand. We’ve already begun to have discussions with other athletes about the Olympics who had seen parts of [the docu] or heard about the film and want to learn more. We are getting the sense that this was going to be empowering for athletes to take a stand. If we can empower one more person to take a stand, the way the media works that will bring an audience of millions to Tommie’s legacy. If that one athlete now does something like Colin did, like Tommie did, and then there’s a young kid who is playing sports right now, who is a champion in seventh grade, in the little league, who grows up knowing that when I’m up there on that stand I’m going to use my platform to make a difference…I will say that’s an amazing story that we have for even our other executive producer, John Legend.
John’s team told us a note that John Legend wrote when he was 14 years old that said, when I get to be an adult I’m going to use my music to help change the world. If only we can inspire a young person right now, through this project, who is 14 years old, we will know that we helped build that bridge so that the next generation has their next Tommie Smith. Tommie’s sacrifice created that inspiration.
I would add one more thing, Mike. One of the central premises we’re seeing playing on the street right now, which is vitally important to Tommie’s story, is that I think people have interpreted that as an exclusive gesture for black Americans, for black athletes and the militancy of that. Of course there’s a lineage of that, but I think what we’re seeing reflected in the current protest as well, in the intersection of the different groups of people that are coming together to rally against police violence and for Black Lives Matter, you’re seeing the manifestation of Tommie’s unity goal. Where explicitly people are hearing, in this film, from Tommie’s voice, that you have permission to protest with us, and that is a thing that I know that I’ve gotten from non-black associates of my studio, of my team, which is, how can I help? This is not us, or you, or them. This is Tommie’s invitation, permission, to do whatever it takes. This film, hopefully, is that unifying factor that allows everyone to understand that we are all in the same fight together.
SMITH: That’s a very important fact. The empowerment of others to stand, speaking with openness, being transparent. Be honestly transparent with an eye of reckoning, because there’s going to be a lot of athletes, professional athletes, non-professional athletes, but just athletes in a community, who are going to talk about this. We need to talk with an open spirit of moving forward. If there’s a disagreement, talk about that disagreement and move on, and if it’s not agreed upon keep moving anyway and don’t stop because somebody has a stop sign that spells stop, wrong.
DEADLINE: One last thing on that. Megan Rapinoe, a star on the Women’s World Cup championship U.S. team, discusses in the film how she took a knee to support Kaepernick and wasn’t penalized, wondering if it was white privilege that people still celebrated her and Kaepernick hasn’t been in the NFL for four seasons. Are you surprised there still is such a high price that some athletes have to pay?
SMITH: It’s called sacrifice. Colin was openly dissed. Tommie Smith was openly dissed but along with a lot of other people, but you must make personal decisions to move or not to move. There’s no in-between. You are or you aren’t, and that’s what Colin’s knee and Tommie’s stand on the victory stand meant. We must go, or move out of the way.
DEADLINE: I’m not spoiling the film to divulge you say in it that you don’t have any regrets for your action…
SMITH: None, whatsoever. My daddy would be very disappointed in me, if I thought of something this important, and didn’t do what I thought was necessary, this sacrifice. I carried my whole family with me, and I don’t want to carry my family under somebody’s knee.