Sam Cooke would have turned 90 today, had he not been shot to death by Bertha Franklin, a motel manageress, during a dispute in South Central Los Angeles on December 11, 1964, when the singer seemed on the brink of the kind of transition from popular hitmaker to cultural spokesman that the equally ill-fated Marvin Gaye would make with What’s Going On seven years later.
According to Franklin, his last words were: “Lady, you shot me.” She is one of the witnesses summoned to speak in The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, a documentary available on Netflix. Its director, Kelly Duane de la Vega, does an excellent job of piecing together Cooke’s story, although perhaps too much emphasis is placed on the conspiracy theories that accumulated after his murder.
His real last words, however, were the lyrics to “A Change Is Gonna Come”, the song that he was inspired to write by hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and which duly became an anthem for the civil rights movement when released as an A-side a fortnight after his death. A probably romanticised version of how he came to compose it is contained in One Night in Miami, a new filmed version of a stage play by Kemp Powers in which Cooke, the NFL star Jim Brown and Malcolm X join Cassius Clay in a motel room on the hours after Clay’s first defeat of Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964.
The meeting did take place, and the invented conversations between the four men are intense and compelling. Malcolm is on the brink of completing Clay’s conversion, but has yet to reveal that he himself is about to break with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. In individual confrontations, the men challenge each other about how to proceed in their dealings with the white world. Brown wants to give up the NFL — in which he represents a role model for black kids — to become a Hollywood star. Cooke is told that it’s time to stop pandering to white audiences. Clay is hours away from becoming Muhammad Ali. But Malcolm, too, is confronted with his own issues.
I lost a bit of faith in the film when Malcolm pulls out a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and plays “Blowing in the Wind” on a handy record player, telling Cooke he should be ashamed that it takes a white boy to write a song addressing their concerns. As far as I can see “A Change Is Gonna Come” was recorded on January 30, 1964, a month before the first Clay-Liston fight. Here the dramatist’s imperative seems to have taken precedence over the actual truth, whatever that may have been.
Otherwise the film — available on Amazon Prime — is beautifully fashioned by its director, Regina King, deeply atmospheric in its mood and its detail, although traces of its stage origins remain. There are excellent performances from the four leads: Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm, Eli Goree as Clay, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr as Cooke. Michael Imperioli — The Sopranos‘ Christopher Moltisanti — turns up as Angelo Dundee, Clay’s trainer.
I recommend it highly, to be followed immediately by The Two Killings, in which — among other things — we see Cooke’s attempts to retain ownership of his work. Dr Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African studies at Duke University, says of him: “What we know is that we never got to see him as a fully mature artist, thinker and activist who, had he lived, would have had a dramatic impact on the next generation of artists, thinkers and activists.” That seems plausible.
Another of the documentary’s talking heads, Renée Graham of the Boston Globe, considers “A Change Is Gonna Come” and remarks: “It’s the shame of this nation that this song should still be so relevant.” But you have the feeling that another generation, perhaps more than one, will come and go before the change of which Cooke sang becomes definitive.
* Some of Cooke’s recordings — including Sam Cooke at the Copa and Ain’t That Good News — are newly available on vinyl, released on the ABKCO label. His finest albums, Night Beat and One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club, were reissued on CD by RCA Legacy in 2005.