'The Two Killings of Sam Cooke'
I spent part of last weekend watching the documentary “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke” on Netflix. If you haven’t yet seen it, I’d strongly recommend that you do the same. I have to admit that I wasn’t prepared for its profundity. Throughout the week, I have kept returning to it in my mind as I continue to digest it.
The documentary chronicles the soul singer’s career — first as a gospel singer in the churches of Chicago, and then touring the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit in the south as a member of The Soul Stirrers. Those experiences, witnessing the segregation and racism of the deep south, had a profound impact on him — as did the 1955 beating death of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
Cooke’s crossover into pop stardom happened relatively suddenly, and his mainstream success provided him with an outlet to speak out for equality. I didn’t realize until seeing the film just how involved Cooke was in the civil rights movement.
The documentary left me with a much more thorough appreciation of the courageous artist behind the music.
For instance, the film details Cooke’s performance in Atlanta for a concert promoted by Dick Clark. The show was under threat from the Ku Klux Klan — which had just bombed a local Jewish synagogue — and the National Guard had to be called in for protection. Nevertheless, Cooke insisted that the show go on as scheduled.
Later in his career, Cooke led a refusal to play a segregated show in Memphis. Many of the other artists on the bill showed up to play, but Sam stayed in his motel room — at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was killed just a few years later. (An interesting side note: The Lorraine is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.)
Growing tired of singing songs like “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha” and “Wonderful World” as the civil rights movement brewed all around him, Cooke began sprinkling songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” into his performances. That would eventually lead to songs like “A Change is Gonna Come,” which was released after his death. Sam wanted to see change come about — but, moreover, he wanted to be part of it. That song serves as a eulogy, of sorts, but is also a glimpse at the future that never came to be.
Sam Cook spent the years leading up to his untimely murder spending time with Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) and Jim Brown. In fact, all four of them were present the night Clay beat Sonny Liston to become World Heavyweight Champ. (About a year later, two of the four would be dead.)
The film also examines the strange circumstances surrounding Cooke’s death, at the Hacienda Hotel in Watts on the evening of December 11, 1964. There are a number of conspiracy theories about that night — and even Elvis Presley reportedly believed that Cooke was killed because he was becoming too powerful.
To this day, many believe that the investigation by LAPD was insufficient—a trope that resonates with the Black Lives Matter movement of today. It has also been noted that Cooke’s death, and its handling by police, can also be seen as an example of the sort of things that led to the Watts riots, which broke out about eight months after Cooke’s death.
There is simply no way to separate Sam Cooke — the artist and his music — from the civil rights movement. And I never fully understood just how inextricable the two were until I watched this film. Again, I’d urge you to do the same.
— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 02/14/19