“ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke” is no “Making a Murderer,” but that might be for the best. This new offering from Netflix, directed by Kelly Duane de la Vega (“Better This World”), is the fifth entry in the “ReMastered” series, which looks into mysteries surrounding major names in the music industry. This installment covers soul singer Sam Cooke, who was shot in a hotel room in 1964. Nobody knows who killed him, or why, but many people suspect that the government had a hand in the mysterious death of this civil rights activist.
I knew next to nothing about Sam Cooke going into the documentary, and I’m sure others feel the same. As implied in the title, the documentary quickly informs us that Sam Cooke was killed in not one, but two senses. Whoever killed Cooke did not just murder the man, but his legacy, which has been overshadowed by the mysterious circumstances of his death.
So, who was Sam Cooke? “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke” pieces together a picture of the pioneering soul singer, who broke down racial barriers in his hugely successful career. What emerges is a portrait of a truly admirable man who, at the age of 33, never had the chance to reach his full potential as a musician and an activist.
“The Two Killings of Sam Cooke” is a fascinating tour through the intersection of music history and black history. The soundtrack is full of the infectious rhythms of gospel, soul and early rock, but de la Vega never lets these catchy tunes drown out the hardships black musicians like Cooke faced during the Jim Crow era. Interviews with scholars, friends and fellow musicians lay out the landscape of America in the 1940s and 50s. They discuss the prejudice Cooke faced, which would lead to his growing awareness of societal inequality. As he matured, he began to incorporate his political beliefs into his music, which many believe made him a threat to the white establishment.
It’s a riveting story, one that appeals to music fans, history lovers and true crime junkies alike. Most compelling of all is Sam Cooke himself. His magnetic personality shines in the film, which integrates audio and visual from his many interviews and live performances. I found him not only incredibly charming, but a brave, intelligent, well-read man who endangered his career — and maybe even his life — to promote a message of racial equality.
This isn’t ideal for your typical weekend binge, and it doesn’t have much in common with other docuseries like “Evil Genius” and “The Staircase.” The focus isn’t so much on who the killer was, but who the victim was. In fact, it’s only in the last 20 or so minutes that Cooke’s death is discussed, and, even then, the documentary doesn’t get into the gruesome details or far-flung theories common in the genre. Instead, it eloquently tells the all too familiar story of a black man whose murder investigation was sidelined by law enforcement because of the color of his skin.
It’s a tragic story, but one that needs to be told. The true crime genre has a tendency to capitalize on society’s morbid fascination with white, male serial killers while ignoring their victims. This is especially true when the victims are people of color. I was glad to see a documentary that uses the unique power of the true crime genre to give a voice to victimized persons and to examine issues of social injustice.
“The Two Killings of Sam Cooke” is a poignant look into the life and death of a remarkable man in an unequal world. If this documentary represents the future of true crime, I’m excited to see what comes next.