Dir. Matt Norman (2008, Australia, 94 mins.)
The best documentary subjects do not need to be exaggerated; by extension, the best documentary filmmakers choose a compelling subject and tell the story honestly. Lesser documentaries make a great spectacle of one-sided stories, blustering filmmakers, and out-of-context quotes. Good documentaries, like Salute, eschew all that nonsense. Instead, filmmaker Matt Norman attempts to tell a naturally compelling story in the most complete, honest, and methodical way possible. The result is a film gracefully executed, a portrait lovingly rendered, and a credit to Australian filmmaking.
Many will be familiar with the image of the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute – after all, it is one of the most iconic images of the 1960s and has appeared in textbooks, posters, and even The Simpsons. I also suspect that more than a few people wondered, as I did upon first encountering the image, about the white man standing on the podium who seemed to have stumbled into history. His name is Peter Norman, and his story, as chronicled by his nephew in this film (along with the stories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the American athletes), turns out to be both fascinating and deeply moving. By wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights button in solidarity with his fellow athletes, Peter Norman incurred the wrath of outraged sports officials; four years later, even though he was ranked as the fifth fastest man worldwide for the two hundred meter event, he was barred from attending the Munich Olympics.
Salute takes the time – a significant amount of time – to carefully build its historical context, much to its credit. It is too easy and misleading to think of historical events in terms of their effects; it is much more worthwhile and essential to understand historical events in terms of their causes. The majority of the film discusses events leading up to the salute – the proposed boycott by black American athletes of the Olympics, the violent riots in Mexico City prior to the games, and the incredible build-up to the two-hundred-meter race itself. Other critics have superficially criticised the film for taking too much time to build this context. Frankly, I prefer this methodical approach, as opposed to the usual convention of slapping together a stock footage montage of the 1960s (the image’s appearance in The Simpsons was in a parody of such stock montages).
This is a documentary with resonance. It will spark conversation. It will add depth to an iconic moment in history. From a documentary, we can’t ask much more.