Dir. Matt Norman, Australia/USA, 2008, 92 mins
Cast: Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Christopher Kirby (Narrator)
Review by David Morrison
The image of two medal-winning black athletes at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, heads bowed and each raising a gloved fist in the air, seems worthy of the old adage that a picture’s worth a thousand words. The image might be familiar, but do you know who the protesters are, and, even if you do, have you ever given much thought to the white Australian on the left?
Salute tells the story of this iconic protest, focusing largely on the forgotten role of Peter Norman, the Aussie sprinter who won silver in the 200-metres that day. Norman bravely volunteered to support the controversial Black Power salutes of his fellow sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, by wearing a symbolic Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. It was also Norman who suggested that Smith and Carlos famously wear one black glove each after Carlos left his pair behind. Sadly, however, all three would pay a heavy price for their courageous stance.
Through a mix of archive footage and modern day interviews – capturing for the first time all three athletes filmed together discussing the events – Salute returns us to the politically charged atmosphere of 1968. The Vietnam war was in full swing, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were to be assassinated, and an angry civil rights movement clamoured for justice. Black athletes had been urged to boycott the games, although this never came to pass; in fact, as Norman rightly points out, such a move would probably have soon been forgotten, whilst the resulting image of protest still holds power. (Norman also wryly observes that had the boycott gone ahead he would now be a gold rather than silver medal winner.)
As befits a sporting documentary, the competitive drama of the track comes alive as the film re-plays and dissects the final race in detail. Even knowing the result, the tension is palpable. Then comes the decision to protest. Smith and Carlos had received death threats and were worried that they could be shot. By contrast, Norman had less to lose; yet his decision to make a stand would have profound consequences for his life.
One of Salute’s strengths as a documentary is its attention to context, filling in the details essential to an understanding of the athletes’ decisions. Australia at this time shamefully maintained a whites only immigration policy, and had civil rights issues regarding the treatment of Aboriginals. In such an environment, both the establishment and media reacted angrily to Norman’s actions, and, shockingly, despite being No.5 in the world, the Australian medalist found that his country preferred to send no sprinters to the 1972 Munich Olympics rather than to include him in their team. His athletics career was effectively finished. Even at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Norman received no official invitation from Australia, only attending as a guest of the United States team, who rightly revere him.
With its focus on a white hero in a tale of civil rights protest, Salute could easily be accused of partiality, directed as it is by the sprinter’s filmmaker nephew Matt Norman. But part of the film’s point is to shed light on a largely forgotten part of sporting history, and one that demonstrates a genuine act of unity in the face of oppression. In fact, Carlos reveals that he would give his life for Norman, and the bond between the three athletes proves unexpectedly moving. Their distinct personalities also add much to the film’s appeal, with Norman’s dry Aussie wit adding a touch of humour to proceedings. Sadly, Norman died before the film was released, but his wish that he might be remembered as an “interesting old guy” seems more than fulfilled by this affecting and inspirational film.