Back in 1968, it appeared the world was in turmoil. The racial tensions between blacks and whites had surpassed boiling point on both sides of the hemisphere. With the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and politician/civil rights activist Bobby Kennedy still fresh in the mind, and with a global platform such as 1968 Mexico Olympics soon after, it was a time for what seemed an opportune moment to stage a human rights protest. So when African-American athlete’s Tommie Smith and John Carlos secured Gold and Bronze medals respectfully in the 200m sprint, with Australian Peter Norman winning silver, they took that opportunity. What followed would become worldwide news and change the lives of the three men on that dais forever.
A balancing act between the bigger picture politics of the era and a celebration of a man, who, albeit a bit unintentionally, became an important voice for peace, unity, and racial equality. All Peter Norman did was wear a badge in support of the his two competitors but he would suffer the same consequences as Tommie Smith and John Carlos who’s ‘Black Power Salute’ rocked the world in 1968. The gesture, linking the three together in lifelong friendship, respect and appreciation ever since.
Director Matt Norman, nephew of Peter, delivers what can only be described as a well-structured and even film. In the first 30 minutes, he does an excellent job to represent and project the state of society at the time. Concentrating on the ever growing strain on communities, as well as the unjustified hatred of the black population both in American and Australia, it sets the scene perfectly. The next third then chronicles the events of the Games themselves and Norman shocking everyone with his World Record breaking performances, obviously climaxing with the salute. Then we have the final 30 minutes, which is the aftermath of the event and what happened to the three men in future years.
Norman’s so methodical in the way he tells the story, he knows exactly what he wants the documentary to say and does it efficiently and effectively. There are a lot of the facts and historical relevance you have to include but the director never forgets to inject the motivations and emotions to proceedings and that’s what makes it such a pleasant but informative experience.
The only real issue I had was some of the footage Norman gathered, and I don’t mean the archive scenes, much of the footage between the three subjects in the present were captured either at poorly filmed public speeches and an informal roundtable. What they’re saying is brilliant and the way they speak about each other, with such respect and love, is beautiful but it really could have used a better sound mix and a little of bit of flair with the visuals. It’s such a powerful subject and famous historical event that I think the film would have benefited greatly if Norman took a bit more care with his interviews and footage.
Finishing on a really touching end that could have felt ham-fisted in another filmmaker’s hands, it works wonders and brings a sweet and heartfelt end to the story of Peter Norman. Salute is a documentary well worth your time, and as the country’s Olympic spirit at a high, you will not have a better time to watch it.