‘For 50 years, people have been putting words into my mouth for what that fist meant,” 76-year-old Tommie Smith explains about his raised-fist pose at the 1968 Olympics. “It meant pride, power, strength. It meant . . . one as a nation.” And yet the makers behind the documentary With Drawn Arms turn Smith’s gesture and words to their own nation-dividing purpose. In an era flooded with blatantly propagandistic docs, With Drawn Arms may be the most outrageous because the filmmakers humiliate their subject in the process of using him as a foil.
That fist-raised pose made Smith instantly iconic; his dark, lean, tall figure sharpened the look of those strikingly virile upstarts in the Sixties Black Power movement. He looked militant even though he really wasn’t — he was just young and susceptible to the fervor of the times.
Now that brash 200-meter gold medalist has aged, grayed, and thickened. Even his skin tone has changed — lightened — into a pale reflection of that famous image, so pale that the makers of With Drawn Arms don’t realize the offense of turning him into a stereotype. They misread Smith’s humanity and the complexity of that famous moment, reshaping his story for a Black Lives Matter puppet show.
The propagandists of With Drawn Arms reject the possibility of enlightening us about the development of American race politics; instead, they promote devolution. Three executive producers — John Legend (a household name that is also a curse), music reviewer Nelson George, and actor Jesse Williams — all practice chicanery. They enlist Glenn Kaino and Afshin Shahidi to direct this agitprop disguised as a biographical tribute.
Smith is their pretext for praising benched quarterback-turned–professional activist Colin Kaepernick and soccer-winger Megan Rapinoe, for their prattling about “white privilege.” Thus the filmmakers validate the non-risk-taking sedition in this era of progressive fashion. Guided by director Kaino, a grant-world eager beaver who identifies as “a fourth-generation Japanese-American conceptual artist,” they exploit Smith to aggrandize themselves.
It is Kaino who makes the alarmingly bad series of art installations (a bridge of arms, a flayed profile) that become the center of the film — immortalizing (“dimensionalizing”) Smith through public sculptures, plus an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The film’s title is an artist’s pun — an unclever joke that irresponsibly implies insurrection or revolution. But the actual aim is to instruct new generations that racial protest can be understood in only one way and that it is perpetual.
However, second to old Tommie’s demurral, the film’s most damning comment comes from Nelson George: “Is patriotism protesting oppression? Or is patriotism blind allegiance despite everything?” This sloppy thinking goes together with filmmaking incompetence, never even making clear what Olympic events Smith won. Treating a human being as an art object, a socialist-realist poster boy, the doc sacrifices Smith to the cause.
They bypass his post-Olympics, post-college inactivity. His personal descent into alcohol and violence (“I hit rock bottom”) is depicted as blood-red cartoon animation, a shameless, PBS-style cliché that is just part of another cliché: Commentators Jemele Hill and Lonnie Bunch pigeonhole Smith as “a symbol of change.” With Drawn Arms proves that race propaganda can be created by cretins. Its arrangement of stock civil-rights clips (slipping a mugshot of Detroit Red/Malcolm X into a Cointelpro montage) leads to unoriginal conclusions, in fact twisting facts to fit an obvious agenda.
The best moment belongs to Smith’s current wife, Delois, who questions Kaino’s motives: “Tommie will talk all night if you let him. What are you here for?” Turns out that Kaino, in his Los Angeles studio, uses Smith for his art projects. (Another sequence confirms the filmmaker’s cultural ignorance about the term “black power” and about the fetishist connotations that “plaster-caster” had for Smith’s generation.)
This is never an honest account of cultural trends — juxtaposing Sixties radical chic with Millennial wokeness. The doc-makers miss the story of Smith’s young zealotry, which could teach us about today’s glib “activism” sponsored by millionaires and duping local malcontents and “community organizers.” Refusing to penetrate the jock mentality that is still easily led, sentimental, and egotistic, the filmmakers include one of Smith’s dubious memories of Olympic running: “I felt a sharp pain. I thought I’d been shot.” It’s the most dishonest doc moment since When the Levees Broke, when Spike Lee let paranoid Hurricane Katrina survivors allege that the government had blown up the levee.
The ultimate deceitfulness of With Drawn Arms occurs in the linking of Smith to the late congressman John Lewis, who plays along, saying, “He gave us all hope. I too can make a contribution.” Lewis’s anachronistic, disingenuous rhetoric proves only that in the game of race-hustling, historical figures who endure into new times can wind up playing (and embarrassing) themselves. It’s clear that Smith and Lewis have not aged gracefully but into dotage. Race-baiters such as Legend, George, Williams, and Kaino are waiting to trap them (as the media have recently done to Harry Belafonte) and make them stooges.
Of course, no progressive doc is complete without an Obama salute — Kaino seduces Smith with promises to meet Oprah and the Obamas, then claims their summit influenced an Obama “passing the baton” speech. All of With Drawn Arms shows the bad faith of inside-track race-frauds competing to claim grievance the fastest. Legend, George, Williams, Kaino, et al., want to force attitudes rather than respect history and truth. And they must all recognize one another. Hustlers alike, they’re not even athletes, just on the sidelines counting their money and patting their comrades on the back.