Salute (2008)

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It would be quite impossible to make an uninteresting documentary about the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, but Australian director Matt Norman gets pretty close with this one, originally released for the domestic Australian market in 2008 and now being released globally to coincide with London 2012.

Talk about missing the main event: Salute tells the story of the one guy on the dais that day who *didn’t* make history: Australian silver medallist Peter Norman, also by some lucky coincidence, the director’s uncle. (The film is produced by a Rebecca Norman, too, I couldn’t help noticing)

Peter Norman’s supporting role in this dramatic political statement – as best as I can make out he wore a Human Rights badge in solidarity and it was his idea for the Americans wear a glove each since they’d left their second pair at home – could probably sustain five or ten minutes as a side bar curio in a documentary about Carlos’ and Smith’s dramatic statement. But, certainly on this presentation, cannot sustain its own 90 minutes.

To fill out the story, the film-makers try to tie America’s civil rights upheaval of late Sixties (cue file footage of Harlem burning, MLK orating, Bobby Kennedy being shot and Californian students fleeing water canons) to simultaneous student unrest in Australia, and the plight of the indigenous Aboriginal “forgotten generation”. All is narrated rather breathlessly by American Chris Kirby (why it couldn’t have been voiced by an Australian is unclear) and accompanied by David Hirschfelder’s intrusively dramatic music.

This approach struck me as not just glib and right-on (the film generally is politically correct enough to warn Aboriginals and Torres Straight islanders to exercise caution when watching, because it contains images of deceased persons), but also disingenuous. Smith and Carlos’ black power salute had nothing at all to do with Australian civil rights. That Peter Norman was on the dais was, however you look at it, an accident of history.

Thus, this film feels less like a history than a hagiography: a careful, if tiresome, assemblage to confabulate a story that really wasn’t there, capitalising on a far more interesting story that really was.

Norman died in 2006. He was a genial but unexciting chap. This much is revealed by endless archive footage of him in interview and conversation: while he was prone to trotting out strings of platitudes on the subject of racial harmony, (“I never looked at the colour of a bloke’s skin, it was only whether he was a good bloke or not” sort of thing) he struggled to come up with any greater insight. No, surprise, I guess: he got his platform on account of his feet and not his political conviction or puiblic speaking. But both Smith and Carlos, of whom there is also much archive footage, are animated and eloquent commentators, and Norman suffers by comparison.

We do not learn much of Norman’s involvement, before or after the Olympics, in civil rights activism. Nor was there any suggestion that he would have done anything out of the ordinary at all had Smith and Carlos not planned their protest. (Norman’s wry comment was that, had the American track-and-field boycott gone ahead, the world would indeed now be a very different place: Peter Norman would be an Olympic Champion!)

There is, therefore, precious little of a story here. It is padded out, instead by an inexpertly compiled backstory and archive footage of interviews with Norman, Carlos, Smith and various other coaches and athletes. Much of this material has been harvested from amateur handycams. A good twenty minutes comes directly from eulogies delivered by Smith, Carlos and others at Norman’s funeral – when you are least likely to hear a balanced view.

The most striking sequence in all that footage is of Carlos and Smith bearing Norman’s coffin. That made as much of a statement as any of interviews included.

In a film of moral absolutes, there are villains, chief among them Avery Brundage, the president of the IOC (plus ca change, eh?) and his Australian domestic equivalent, a man rejoicing in the name Judy Patching. Neither is interviewed or defended. We hear (again, through archive footage) from the solitary white sprinter in the American team, clearly still bitter about his exclusion from the relay, ironically, on grounds of race, and still unable to apprehend that the black power gesture had dramatically transcended any significance the results of the race might have otherwise achieved. Otherwise, there is no investigative element to this documentary at all.

The most interesting part of Norman’s story is that he was banned for two years and ostracised for the rest of his life by the Australian sporting community. He wasn’t even asked to be part of the official proceedings at Sydney 2000, and had to be invited by the Americans. All of this, ostensibly, for wearing an equal rights badge. This story is touched on but glossed over. 

Peter Norman was a remarkable Australian athlete: his record for the 200m, set in that race in Mexico, stands to this day, and would have been good enough to take Gold even at Sydney 2000. He seems inexplicably to have been treated very poorly by his countrymen. In glossing over that story and portraying Norman as instrumental in another event in which he really was a bystander, Matthew Norman has missed an opportunity to do his uncle proud.

Director: Matthew Norman
Stars: Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, John Carlos
Producer: Matthew Norman
Associate Producer: Rebecca Norman
 

Film Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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