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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

4 April

Martin Luther King assassinated, 1968

On this day in 1968, the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. He’d gone there to intervene in a strike of black sanitary public works employees, who were employed on zero-hours contracts, while their white counterparts were paid by the day, irrespective of hours worked. There had been a bomb threat against King’s plane en route and he was clearly expecting trouble. On 3 April, at Mason Temple, he delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech – “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life… But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you…” – which clearly suggests that he knew he was on a hit list. The next day, after talking to the musician Ben Branch, and asking him to play the hymn Take My Hand, Precious Lord at a rally that evening, King was felled by a rifle shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where he regularly stayed. Most likely he died instantly but an hour later, at 7.05pm, he was pronounced dead. He was 39. The hymn Take My Hand, Precious Lord was sung at his funeral.

Salute (2008, dir: Matt Norman)

At the Mexico Olympics in 1968, the medal ceremony for the 200 metres race turned into a political statement whose impact can still be felt down the years. As the Star Spangled Banner was struck up the gold medal winner Tommie Smith and his fellow American John Carlos (bronze) raised their fists in the Black Power salute. Silver medallist Peter Norman, a white Australian, wore a badge proclaiming himself part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a badge that both Carlos and Smith were also wearing.

This documentary about that day, the salute, the ensuing media hysteria, and what happened to the athletes involved, was made by Matt Norman, Peter Norman’s nephew, and so focuses more on Peter than might initially seem justifiable. Except that Peter Norman is a self-effacing, humble and funny man, a fine example of noble humanity and a great guide to the events as they unfolded. As are both Carlos and Smith, both of whom Matt Norman interviews at length. Unlike the American style of documentary, which usually function as a celebration of the subject at hand, Salute takes time to analyse both sides. So we hear the arguments that the salute was important, both for the black people back home, but also for the oppressed in the shanty towns around Mexico City, at least 200 of whom had recently been killed by Mexican militia, the rest of whose lives had been made immeasurably worse by the arrival of the Olympic circus (Smith and Carlos claim their clenched fists were a “human rights salute” not just a black power salute). On the other hand there is the argument, made forcibly, that it was a mere gesture, changed nothing, and only served to ruin the careers of all involved. That last of which is true, for sure – none of the participants went to another Olympics, in spite of the fact that the race was so fast that Norman’s second place would have won him gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Thanks to the clear recall of Peter Norman and the assiduous research of his nephew, the film has a wider function – anecdotes such as the one from Peter about the Australian athletes being so unused to altitude that they couldn’t walk up the stairs of their Mexico hotel, these really give a flavour of the time. Adding more depth are revelations about Avery Brundage, the Olympic chief back then, whose racist past could be traced all the way back to Hitler’s Olympics in 1936. It’s a fascinating film, which would work better with a trim here and there, though unusual because it’s about one form of idealism butting up against another.

Why Watch?

  • A perfect example of the “should sport and politics mix?” debate
  • A useful introduction to Olympic history
  • All the main players are interviewed
  • Impressive use of archive footage

Salute – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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