The intersection of sports and politics is explored in timely fashion in “Salute,” a labor-of-love docu about Australian sprinter Peter Norman and his role in the moment, at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, when U.S. black athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave a power salute during a medal ceremony. Made by Norman’s nephew, Matt, the film makes excellent use of archival footage and has a heartwarming, spirited atmosphere, but also tends toward repetitiveness. Skedded for local theatrical release in July, this could win gold slots at docu fests and enjoy a marathon on pubcaster channels.
After showing the moment under scrutiny, pic (with excellent narration by Oz-based American actor Chris Kirby) contextualizes the tumultuous year in terms of international events such as the May riots in Paris and the recent assassinations of both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Australia, where Aboriginal citizens had only been granted voting rights the previous year, was still in the grip of its 1880s White Australia Policy, which continued to obstruct non-white immigration.
On Oct. 2, 10 days before the Olympics began, Mexican militia killed at least 200 citizens in the Tlatelolco massacre, a poverty-induced riot in Mexico City led by student activists. Officials considered closing the games.
Peter Norman was seen as having only an outside chance. But his combination of running prowess and quick adaptation to Mexico City’s altitude meant that in an event dominated by African-Americans (in an Olympics widely boycotted by African countries), Norman was elevated to the status of “Great White Hope.”
Using contempo interviews with Norman (who died earlier this year) and his competitors, Harlem-born Carlos and Californian Smith, the film examines how tensions in sports and politics unfolded side by side.
Norman’s amusing anecdote about his coming in second to Carlos in a heats race reveals the blossoming camaraderie among the athletes. While Norman never adandoned his desire to win, the narrative shows how the political naif, raised by strict Salvation Army types in one of the West’s most conservative countries, was willing to support two black athletes at a time when many African-Americans were too intimidated to speak up.
Interviews with Norman’s competitors and civil libertarians show their deeply felt affection for the Australian sprinter. But the film still leaves Norman as something of a mystery; some of the negative consequences of Norman’s actions are mentioned, but pic seems to have omitted details that could have fleshed out a man who, for many, is just the white guy in the “power salute” photo.
Editors John Leonard and Jane Moran do an impressive job assembling a wealth of archival footage (on various film and video formats), though hefty cutting would make this a more riveting hourlong docu. Excessive use of talking heads undermines the film’s momentum, and some sound recording is murky.