'The Two Killings of Sam Cooke': Creators of Netflix's Riveting 'ReMastered' Series Unpack the Latest Episode

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Courtesy of Netflix
Sam Cooke

“The music you know, the stories you don’t.” 

That’s the tag line for ReMastered, the Netflix original documentary series created by Emmy and Peabody Award winners Jeff and Michael Zimbalist. The pair also double as executive producers alongside Irving Azoff and Stu Schreiberg. Launched last October, the series examines seminal events involving iconic artists and seeks to reveal new perspectives beyond what was previously reported. Artists spotlighted thus far in the eight-episode first season include Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, Jam Master Jay and Chilean singer Victor Jara.

“This isn’t Behind the Music,” says Michael, “because these episodes aren’t just a retrospective or a biopic. We’re looking with an investigative lens at certain questions in music history that we feel we can actually further the journalism on.” 

With February being Black History Month, that lens is currently focused on Sam Cooke. The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, directed by Kelly Duane de la Vega, explores the mystery behind the murder of Cooke, who died from a gunshot wound in 1964. Ahead of his time as an advocate for artists’ rights, he established his own record label and publishing company, later partnering with manager Allen Klein. The former gospel singer scored a string of R&B/pop crossover hits beginning with the chart-topping “You Send Me” in 1957. Also a civil rights activist, Cooke’s historic meeting with football legend Jim Brown, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali -- following Ali being crowned world heavyweight champion -- was spied on by the FBI.

Best known for the classic “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Cooke died a year before his signature protest anthem was released.

The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, which debuted Feb. 8, features riveting insights from family, friends, journalists and academics as well as archival footage. In the following interview, Duane and the Zimbalist brothers talk about putting the “incredible power” of Cooke’s life front and center.

Why does Cooke’s story still resonate?

KD: One of the things that drew me to tell his story is how we cling to those folks who have something powerful to say that gives us some hope in times of darkness. It was also the fact that the LAPD did not do a meaningful, robust investigation into his murder that was a black-on-black crime. It was like, “Well, we don’t have to put in the time.” That doesn’t feel too dissimilar to the conversations coming out of #BlackLivesMatter. Even the death of Cooke -- this incredibly successful singer and businessman who could move elegantly through both the black and white worlds -- wasn’t taken seriously by police. It keeps the conversation circling around the death and takes us away from the incredible power of his life. The legacy of not having people’s lives being taken seriously has generational effects on families, individuals and culture.

JZ: Working closely with Kelly to find an angle that highlighted this lesser-known part of his personality and worldview was what made us all committed to including his story in the first season. This is sort of what the title indicates: in addition to the physical killing of Cooke, there was the killing of his potential as a leader, particularly as a civil rights leader. We wanted to approach interviews with those still alive who knew him most intimately and those who’d worked with him. We wanted to ask them about that amputated potential: what was he on the path to becoming? What were some of those influences in his life that were pushing him toward that goal, that started turning him from being a performer into being more of a political or social leader?

Did you get the sense from them that Cooke knew he might not finish what he wanted to accomplish? 

MZ: I can’t think of something specific being said to that. But I will say that one thing we hoped would come through in this piece is the notion that being assassinated or being caught in an accident as it were that would take one’s life was something pretty real for not just Cooke, but everybody he was fraternizing with that was controversial at the time. The idea that you could actually be risking your life by making decisions within the record industry is something that’s probably hard to relate to for audiences today without understanding the full context of what was happening then.

Who was on your interview wish list that didn’t come to pass?

KD: There were two heartbreaks. One was Aretha Franklin. She’d originally granted us an interview but then her health began declining. The other person I wanted was Mavis Staples. She was married to Spencer Leak, who talks about Cooke’s Chicago funeral in the film. They were very connected. It was hard to find people still alive that knew him well. Billy Davis was one. He was with Cooke in Memphis when Cooke decided to boycott a big show there. Another was Roscoe Robinson, a gospel singer who knew Cooke when he was 14. 

JZ: We were so close with Aretha. There were a few different reschedules but we weren’t able to do it. We were psyched to get Quincy Jones. He doesn’t play a big role in the film. But to have his voice in there and place him as part of the chitlin’ circuit [touring in the South], talking about some of the biggest figures in music that were also part of that was a symbolic and important presence in the film. 

Did you reach out to the Allen Klein estate?

JZ: We did have conversations early on with the label [ABKCO Music & Records]. We interviewed Adler, who is very close with [Klein’s son] Jody Klein. It was important that we let them know that the film was looking at this story from a bigger societal perspective and not specifically about the relationship between Klein and Cooke. Nor was it just another sensationalist look at the circumstances around the murder. Ultimately, however, we did not end up getting Jody on camera.

What did you learn about Cooke that you didn’t know before?

JZ: So many of the films in the series inadvertently seem to share a similar arc for the protagonist: moving from entertainer/performer to becoming more of a social leader. In the first episode about Marley, there’s a line that describes his arc as going from “showman to shaman.” With Cooke, so often there are these sprawling cradle-to-grave biopics that cover all facets of his life. But rarely is it front and center that he was gradually taking more and more risks to move away from showman to shaman. 

KD: His profound generosity of spirit. Everybody I interviewed, whether they knew him in Chicago or L.A., talked about how he loved to lift people up. His sister-in-law told me a very sweet story about how all the Cookes could sing but she couldn’t to save her life. But one afternoon, Cooke sat with her, figured out where she had [her] register and wrote a song that she could sing. She said it was the only thing she’d ever been able to sing. Intimate details like that were really compelling. The bigger thing is that Cooke, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Dr. King and Jim Brown were all circling each other and learning from each other. It was this robust intellect; people poised to shape and change our culture. And we lost every single one of them except Brown. Examining what we lost as a culture and spending time in that space was a beautiful learning experience.