Sam Cooke documentary focuses on Civil Rights

Photo courtesy of Netflix

On Feb. 11, Netflix released its new documentary film “ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke,” about the career and the shocking death of the titular soul singer and songwriter. 

As a part of its push to boost its original content offerings, Netflix has recently moved into the documentary genre with productions like “Fyre,” about the fraudulent music festival, and “Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer,” a miniseries about a reporter who interviewed Ted Bundy shortly after his incarceration. “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke” is the latest manifestation of this trend.

The good news about Netflix’s effort to enter the documentary genre is that based on the small sample of films and shows currently available to viewers, the streaming giant’s documentaries are a serious improvement on its chronically terrible fictional films. The Kelly Duane directed “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke” is no exception.

For those interested in the music, life and legacy of the father of soul, this film is well worth a watch. Those who are currently asking themselves who this Sam Cooke fellow is should see this film as soon as possible.

Part of the reason why one should absolutely see “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke” is the film’s subject matter. Sam Cooke is among the most culturally and musically significant artists of the twentieth century, and the lack of broad awareness of his significance is a tragedy. Still, the film itself deserves a big share of the credit for presenting the story of Cooke’s life and death in an engaging and informative manner.

Duane uses a series of interviews with a variety of individuals who were in close contact with Cooke throughout the fifties and early sixties to paint a vivid and compelling portrait of the singer as a principled and courageous black man living in a country that seemed to love him but hate the color of his skin. 

Dionne Warwick, a singer who toured with Cooke in the early 1960s tells a particularly powerful anecdote about a time when Cooke shielded her from harassment by a South Carolina police officer. Warwick explains that Cooke often used his stature as a national celebrity to protect “anybody that he cared about.”

In her interview, journalist Renee Graham points out that by the peak of his career, Cooke could have avoided touring the in South — and the segregation that came with it — altogether. Still, Graham says that she believes that Cooke continued to play shows in the South “to keep his finger on what was happening in the Civil Rights movement.” 

This idea makes up the thesis of the film’s portrayal of Cooke’s life — he saw the injustice of segregation in the South, and rather than using his unique cultural position to avoid it, he used his status to fight against segregation. 

The film also develops a chronological narrative, in which Cooke begins his resistance of segregation by continuing to tour the South in solidarity, and over time moves on to more overt protests and acts of resistance. 

Billy Davis, one of Cooke’s friends and fellow musicians, tells the story of one of Cooke’s earliest acts of overt protest. Davis describes an incident in which Cooke boycotted a segregated auditorium in Memphis, refusing to play a show their in the early 1960s. Davis further points out that in doing so, Cooke “was taking a big risk,” opening himself up to retaliation from local whites. 

One of the best choices which Duane makes for the film is the inclusion of the story of Jesse Belvin, a young musician who was the first to play an integrated concert in Arkansas. 

Belvin’s promising career was cut short after that show when he suffered a fatal car accident because his tires had been slashed by locals in retaliation. 

The incident serves to illustrate just how dangerous it was for a musician like Cooke to protest segregation in the way that he did, creating a real sense of suspense and danger for the viewer and highlighting Cooke’s courage. 

Aside from the interviews, Duane uses original audio recordings of interviews which Sam Cooke gave during his life to emphasize the points which the film seeks to make. 

For instance, after telling the story of Cooke’s boycott, Duane includes a clip from an interview in which Cooke explains that by protesting segregated shows, he hoped to “help to break down racial segregation here.” 

These recordings add a weight which the interviews cannot possibly carry, and, more importantly, demonstrate to the viewer that Cooke was fully aware of the contributions he was making to the Civil Rights movement. The clips demonstrate that Cooke was not simply a musician whose work happened to contribute to racial progress; he was an intentional and willing participant in the movement. 

The documentary’s narrative cohesion is by far its greatest strength. It tells the story of Cooke’s life compellingly and clearly, a feat which is often difficult for a documentary which relies solely on interviews and original audio recordings in lieu of a narrator. The film’s greatest weakness, on the other hand, is its failure to take advantage of every aspect of the media through which it presents itself. 

An important part of a great documentary is the ability of the imagery to complement the audio, and in this regard Duane comes up short. While there are some striking images and videos of Cooke’s performances and of the pre-Civil Rights South, most of the visuals in the documentary feel like arbitrarily selected stock photos of segregation.  The photo and video choices feel bland and generic, and do not really contribute to the telling of the story. 

In a production that is so well written and structured and that features such a strong set of first hand accounts and insightful interviews, it feels a great shame that the curation of photos and videos is so poor. The film’s visuals are so useless that the viewer cannot help but think that with a few minor changes to the documentary, it could just as easily be presented as a podcast.

Still, despite Duane’s failure to fully utilize the visual tools available to her, “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke” is impossible to put down. The viewer, even if he is familiar with Cooke’s life, finds himself wondering what story the interviewees will tell next. 

This documentary is fascinating and enlightening, and it is undeniably among the best original films that Netflix has put out to date. Viewers would be wise to give it a chance.