Sunday 8 July 2012

Taking the stand: "Salute"

In 1968, that most incendiary of years, two competitors at the Mexico Olympiad made headlines and history. At the medal ceremony for the men's 200 metres, American athletes Tommie Smith (who'd won the gold medal) and John Carlos (bronze) raised their fists in the now-iconic Black Power salute, and were rewarded for their show of political consciousness by being sent home from the Games by the U.S. Track and Field Federation, and then banned from Olympic competition for life. Matt Norman's documentary Salute pulls out the previously obscured story of the event's silver medallist, Peter Norman, the filmmaker's uncle, who - rather than coming between or undermining his fellow medallists - helped consolidate their message of empowerment, and brought it to a wider, whiter audience yet.

The three stories are told in parallel, as if its subjects were still running in adjacent lanes. Smith and Carlos came up through the U.S. collegiate system, enduring racist coaches and segregated bathrooms, not too far from the fields where the Klan were burning crosses. Norman, the son of a Salvation Army officer, grew up into an Australia that had its own issues of prejudice to address: this was an era when lands and children were still being taken away from the country's Aboriginal population, and handed over to the white man. Mexico, too, was burning when it came to the day of the opening ceremony, with students and the disenfranchised rioting, and being suppressed with extreme force by the authorities. 

Back in 1968, it appears, you didn't have to go far - and certainly didn't have to run more than 200 metres - to happen across flames of some kind. This Olympiad was meant to shut out the world beyond the stadium; Smith and Carlos were having none of it. In retrospect, raising a fist seems a simple gesture of defiance, but it's a hugely powerful one when you have the eyes of the watching public upon you. This is a simple story, too, but it's a resonant one, here clipped together from video highlights of the various conferences and seminars the medallists spoke at over the years, and leavened with archive Games footage - still vibrant and stirring - and Norman Sr.'s own droll testimony: he jokes he wishes the black American athletes had made good on their threatened boycott, because that way he might just have taken home the gold. 

Smith and Carlos are tougher cookies - they had to be, trying to excel in a racist system, competing in their event under threat of death, and then, after they were cast out from the athletics fraternity, having to find alternative means of employment to support themselves. (Try to imagine anyone telling Usain Bolt or Asafa Powell they had to do the same.) These two don't mince their words, which makes for a documentary gratifyingly light on empty platitudes: the respect they give Norman is hard-earned and deserved, for when it came to taking a stand - and accepting the consequences of taking a stand - he was very much one of them. In a fortnight when our own leaders have looked keen to use the Olympics as flag-waving distraction, Salute arrives as a welcome corrective: a film that suggests how a podium can be a platform, a torch a beacon of enlightenment, and the Games a force for real change.

Salute opens in selected cinemas from Friday, and will be available on DVD from July 30.

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