'With Drawn Arms': Film Review

With Drawn Arms
Courtesy of Afshin Shahidi
An uneven but moving look at courage and consequences.

Afshin Shahidi and artist Glenn Kaino pay tribute to one of the two Black Olympians who stunned the world with a gesture in 1968.

Recalling the occasions when Hollywood brought moviegoers dueling movies about volcanoes, killer asteroids or Truman Capote, the end of 2020 sees the unlikely arrival of two documentaries about the most memorable moment in the 1968 Summer Olympic Games. Arriving a few months after Tom Ratcliffe and Becky Paige's The Stand, Glenn Kaino and Afshin Shahidi's With Drawn Arms also celebrates the bravery of Black athletes who stood with bowed heads and raised fists to protest social injustice.

Surprisingly, the two docs aren't terribly alike, with this one focused less on historical context than on the effect the protest had on gold medal-winning sprinter Tommie Smith and how it inspired a series of works, decades later, by visual artist Kaino. While it's strange to see Smith telling his story again so soon, especially in a year that is neither a significant anniversary of the act nor particularly soon after similar gestures by controversial athletes today, someone with sufficient interest can take something away from both films. More visually polished than its predecessor but lopsided in its emphasis, Arms works hardest to milk a narrative of ostracization and rebirth, almost completely ignoring Smith's fellow protester John Carlos in its focus on the former's iconic image.

Where Stand offered newcomers much more information about what led to the protest, interviewing other Black athletes of the day and Harry Edwards, organizer of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, this version zips through the buildup quickly; listens again to Smith's step-by-step account of the race he won; and gets us to that award podium. There, it assembles what feels like every film and video that captured the moment — complete with audio of what sportscaster Brent Musburger says was more boos than he'd ever heard before or since — into a stirring montage.

Musburger recalls racing to interview Smith and Carlos as soon as they were off the field, locking a basement door behind him so Howard Cosell would have to wait. But the newspaper article he filed immediately thereafter helped no one. He admits he "was young and dumb," using "thoughtless" language to capture the effect the gesture had on the crowd. Weirdly labeling the quiet, dignified pose the "most unsubtle" protest possible, he also suggested Carlos and Smith should've skipped the awards altogether.

Things went badly for the two men starting before they left Mexico. Bringing today's perspective to their treatment, sportswriter Jemele Hill sees a professional fallout equivalent to that suffered by Colin Kaepernick when he knelt during the national anthem. For reasons that are never explained, the film says nothing about what happened to Carlos, focusing on Smith's rocky road back to working in sports. (Carlos didn't participate in The Stand either, though that film used plenty of interview footage shot by others.)

The doc's overlong midsection spends more time than is necessary on family histories and struggles with depression, though it's heartening to see how well Smith seems to have rebounded after hitting "rock bottom." Then it's on to an account of the sculptures he inspired Kaino to create, many built around a cast the artist made of Smith's upraised arm. These very accessible works were shown in Smith's current home state of Georgia, and again, the filmmakers do a good job of showing them off before lingering too long, growing overly sentimental in images of young people mimicking the gesture.

A coda points out that Smith was finally inducted into the U.S. Olympics Hall of Fame in 2019 — a mere two months before the I.O.C. banned athletic protests entirely.

(Available Friday, December 4, via Metrograph Ticketed Screenings)
Production companies: Sutter Road, Zipper Bros.
Directors: Afshin Shahidi, Glenn Kaino
Producers: Glen Zipper, Sean Stuart
Executive producers: John Legend, Jesse Williams, Ty Stiklorius, Mike Jackson
Director of photography: Afshin Shahidi
Editors: Jake Pushinsky, Darrin Roberts, Sasha Freedman, Annie Guidice
Composer: David Wittman

82 minutes