Netflix has earned a reputation for its extraordinary tales and documentaries that have shaken its audience for their diverse and thrilling subjects. Recently they have covered new ground of the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s-60s through the life and death of soul singer, Sam Cooke. Coined the “King of Soul”, Sam Cooke reached new heights for African-Americans, during this time elevating his political consciousness with his music.
The Two Killings of Sam Cooke tells the story of his hugely successful career as a soul artist and political activist, right through to his murder. Held with great suspicion, his death also held the symbol for the death of a movement and belief system that thrived in his life. Sam Cooke was self-aware of the racial system within America and aimed to influence a culture much bigger than himself – earning him the Songwriters Hall of Fame Towering Song Award in 2013 for his iconic track ‘A Change is Gonna Come.’ This anthem underpins Sam Cooke’s aspiration in life and is evident in this recent Netflix documentary. Directed by Kelly Duane de la Vega, the documentary introduces new real-life footage, even the emergency phone call made after his shooting in 1964 at only age 33. “Part of his legacy was hijacked by the way he died,” states Kelly Duane de la Vega. “He was an incredible musical artist, but just as important was the way he contributed to the Civil Rights Movement and embodied the idea of an African-American artist having power in the record industry. It was a seedy end, and for some people, that’s where the conversation ended.”
Sam Cooke led an incredible life, beginning his musical career in a gospel choir and performing with his siblings, called The Singing Children. It wasn’t long before he was scouted to perform with Highways QC at 15 and replaced R.H Harris as lead singer for The Soul Stirrers. When Cooke began his solo career, he instantly became a household name with 28 songs in the top 40. It is this incredible achievement that created such animosity and complexities in mid-nineteenth-century America. With 28 tracks in the R&B/Hip Hip Billboard top 40, Sam Cooke was an influential presence in all homes. Yet his music varied with his audience. When listening to Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club it is easy to hear a difference between his live performance and his chart records, performed on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show. Sam Cooke’s gospel roots were never truly accepted by mainstream culture and were toned down for popular tracks. His background in gospel music thrives on stage in performances such as ‘Live at Harlem's Square Club’ with an acceptance of similar gospel music backgrounds. It is a great shame to know that limitations existed due to the racial barriers that cultivated America in the 1950s.
Sam Cooke’s awareness of these barriers became a political motivation for both his music and life. However, while enforcing a non-segregated audience and refusing to sit on a ‘Jim Crow bus’, Netflix’s documentary reveals how Cooke struggled to even get a ride into the city from any white taxi drivers. This incredible injustice frustrated Sam Cooke and his close circle of political activists. Yet this may be the reason for his death. The documentary questions the legitimacy of the accidental shooting of Sam Cooke as some believe his death was constructed as a way to silence a threat to white power. Although his name is not mentioned these losses of inspirational lives are acknowledged in Marvin Gaye’s ‘Abraham’; Marvin and John made the simplicity and rhetoric of the verses underpin the repetitive loss of life-changing people. The documentary tells us of great injustices suffered by Sam Cooke due to his race, despite his wealth and appreciation within music. With racial tensions at their peak in the South, he was still determined to tour it to give representation and enforce his political thought. His experiences on the tour were demonstrative of the racist culture that was rooted in America. It was following these experiences that he decided to boycott any shows that hosted a segregated audience. He explained: “I hope by refusing to play to a segregated audience, it will help to break down racial segregation here.” While being threatened by the prominent Ku Klux Klan, this was a bold move, yet just one of the incredible and bold choices Sam Cooke made throughout his life.
His connections and friendships with Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali), Malcolm X and Jim Brown became a threat to white America, with his death believed to be at the pinnacle of immense change. It is no shock that three months following his murder came the death of Malcolm X, and four years later, Martin Luther King Jr. Sam Cooke’s life and death resonate with the Civil Rights Movement and the African- American community to this day. It is no wonder that he inspired such amazing artists as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Otis Reading and James Brown. His legacy laid the foundations for change with a boundless power. For this very reason Sam Cooke was elected into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, only just after the 25-year waiting limit for eligibility since a first record, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame the following year. Soon after in 1999 he was awarded the Grammys’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Sam Cooke’s incredibly bold achievements and milestones have earned him the equally bold name of King of Soul, and as the man who created soul throughout the decades the timing of this documentary release could not have been better. The relevance of the issues within the documentary rattle the core, as the racial tensions and subjugation of the African-American community during Sam Cooke’s life hold uncanny parallels to today’s movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter.’
The issue of police brutality aimed at black citizens is still prolific, resonating the eerie questioning of Cooke’s song ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, and even more so, the actual advancement of racial relations in America. Netflix’s new documentary The Two Killings of Sam Cooke not only shines a light on injustices in 1950/60s America but shows in retrospect the harsh prejudices that are still prevalent today in many forms beyond those of race. The 70-minute special is incredibly well produced, showing both sides to Sam Cooke’s public personas, yet one underlying feature to his character prevails: his will for change and justice
MUSE Album of Choice: Sam Cooke Live at The Harlem Square Club