Tommie Smith, who won the Gold Medal and broke the world record in the 200-meter race in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and promptly got banished by the USOC and rendered a pariah for raising a gloved fist during the National Anthem to protest racism, is poised to get more of the reconsideration he deserves. With Drawn Arms, a stirring documentary about Smith’s protest and ensuing odyssey that is directed by Glenn Kaino and Afshin Shahidi and was acquired and aired by Starz last month will be broadcast Sunday on Bounce. That is the broadcast & multi-platform entertainment network serving African Americans. Bounce has also set Smith as one of four honorees for the Bounce Trumpet Awards, a longstanding honor which recognizes outstanding accomplishments of African Americans who succeeded against long odds and inspired others, with a list of past honorees that includes Rep. John Lewis, Muhammad Ali, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles and others.
Deadline saw the docu after its Tribeca Premiere and acquisition hopes were halted in the starting blocks as the Covid pandemic forced the fest to cancel. It was a shame, particularly because the docu proved timely, with the social unrest and protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The NBA to temporarily postpone its playoffs when Milwaukee Bucks players refused to take the court after Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer and was left paralyzed. There is connective tissue between these NBA and WNBA protests and those started by Colin Kaepernick and finally were embraced by the NFL. And there is connective tissue to the misunderstood and courageous stand taken by Smith, an amiable man who decided that he was going to make the most of his one global moment. He thrust a black gloved fist during the playing of the National Anthem (Bronze Medalist John Carlos did the same with his left fist) to protest to convey the racism and poverty facing Blacks back home in the volatile ’60s. Muddled media dispatches inferred the sprinters were flashing a Black Power salute. Both athletes were expelled from Mexico City 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 put Smith into its Hall of Fame. The remarkable docu showed the hellish toll the protest took on the life of Smith, professionally and personally. It nearly broke him at times, but he overcame. The filmmakers, especially the accomplished artist Kaino, basically forced the issue for a reconsideration, and the inventive ways that they created recognition for Smith’s athletic accomplishment, and the real meaning of his social protest, are well worth watching.
It has largely been a lonely journey for Smith, but opening up to the filmmakers has him optimistic and looking forward to a potential book and possibly a narrative telling of his story and maybe another documentary. “Everyone saw the image, but there was a lot I kept inside and this artistry opened it up and I am keen on moving it forward,” he told Deadline. “I can’t wait to show this to everyone. The visual of Tommie Smith everyone saw, but the inside you don’t know. I had no platform to say it before now, beyond my silent protest moment. Opening up, this is new to me.”
The docu was shown to both NBA and WNBA players in the bubble playoff tournament, but he and the filmmakers were unable to attend as Covid continues to vex face to face interactions. Smith and the filmmakers hope to remedy that next summer: they will be at the Summer Olympics next year in Tokyo, which also got canceled in the pandemic. While Smith is certainly open to revisiting his dramatic Olympic moment, he’s really there to watch the sprinters.
“I’m a scientist of speed and I like to understand what’s going on in the minds of the people who will be on that great physical stage, where anything can happen,” said the man who proved that statement more than 50 years ago.