AN UNLIKELY COLLABORATION has produced artworks, exhibitions, and a new documentary distilling the life, legacy, and broader meaning and implications of a single political act by track and field champion Tommie Smith. In 1968, Smith won the Olympic gold medal in the 200 meter sprint and when he raised a black-gloved fist on the medal stand in Mexico City, it drew more international attention than his athletic accomplishments on the field.

The gesture of protest was meant to raise awareness about global human rights abuses and the fight for civil rights in the United States. Smith was a 24-year-old student at San Jose State University in California. When he returned home, he was ostracized and his employment prospects were diminished. He said the experience destroyed what he loved: running and his family.

Half a century later, a historic figure with contemporary influence, Smith has found creative ways to tell his story, including a feature length documentary. “With Drawn Arms” debuts this evening on STARZ.

“In 1968, Black athletes were expected to perform and shut up,” Smith said in the film. “We were dealing with racism. We were dealing with not having a voice. Running became my voice. I knew something had to be done. My next move would be immortalized in history.”

“In 1968, Black athletes were expected to perform and shut up. We were dealing with racism. We were dealing with not having a voice. Running became my voice. I knew something had to be done. My next move would be immortalized in history.” — Tommie Smith

Perform and shut up. It’s a refrain all too familiar today. The same sentiment has been directed at LeBron James who is outspoken about social justice issues. Smith’s experiences parallel former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s.

Directed by Glenn Kaino and Afshin Shahidi, “With Drawn Arms” counts John Legend among its executive producers. For eight years, Smith has been collaborating with Kaino, a conceptual artist who works across disciplines, from sculpture and painting to installations and filmmaking.

 


Installation view of GLENN KAINO, “Bridge,” 2013 (fiberglass, steel, wire, gold paint, dimensions variable), High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 2018. | © Glenn Kaino

 

In 2018, the pair used the same title for an exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Smith’s adopted hometown. “With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith” presented sculptures by Kaino, drawings by the artist and the athlete, and materials from the Tommie Smith Archives. “Bridge” (2013), a 100-foot-long sculpture, anchored the exhibition. The work is composed of 150 suspended forearms with clenched fists, cast in fiberglass from Smith’s arm and painted gold.

The monumental work was the first collaboration between the two. “Bridge” was on view in 2014 at the Studio Museum in Harlem and in Washington, D.C., as part of The 5 x 5 Project, a public art initiative presented by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Earlier this year, the “With Drawn Arms” exhibition was presented at the San Jose Museum of Art.

In the documentary, Kaino speaks to his connection with Smith. “Somehow a Japanese American artist became one of the captains of Tommie Smith’s legacy team,” the Los Angeles-based artist said. “Tommie’s salute made such an impact on me that I had to collaborate on a project with him. …My projects with Tommie allow you to be a witness of this rich history the salute created.”

Viewers see Smith meet with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office and with now Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, who graciously accepts his donation of Olympic memorabilia for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Civil rights legend and Georgia Congressman John Lewis (1940-2020), sports journalist Jemele Hill, cultural critic Nelson George, actor Jesse Williams, Megan Rapinoe, and Kaepernick, among others, are also featured in the film.

For his part, Smith finally makes clear what his raised fist meant. “For 50 years, people have been putting words in my mouth,” he said. “That fist meant pride. It meant strength. It means togetherness, one as a nation.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: From “With Drawn Arms” film, Communicating Rooks

 

READ MORE about the U.S. Olympic Committee response after gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, both students at San Jose State University, raised their fists on the medal stand in Mexico City

FIND MORE about the appearance of the clenched fist in contemporary art on Culture Type

 


Official Theatrical Trailer for “With Drawn Arms” about Olympic Gold Medalist Tommie Smith. Co-Directed by Glenn Kaino. | Video by Communicating Rooks

 

BOOKS
Tommie Smith’s famous protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics is explored in “Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith” and “The Revolt of the Black Athlete: 50th Anniversary Edition” by Harry Edwards. Also consider, “The Work of Glenn Kaino: Communicating Rooks,” “A.Bandit: A Secret Has Two Faces,” a collaboration between Kaino and Derek DelGaudio, and “Bounce: Mark Bradford & Glenn Kaino.”

 

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