Few historical figures are more deserving of a great biopic than Sam Cooke, one of the most consequential and chronically misunderstood American musicians of the 20th century. In 1957, Cooke (whose last name at the time was spelled “Cook”) stepped away from his role as lead singer of the Soul Stirrers—one of the most popular gospel acts in the United States—to record a secular song of his own composition called “You Send Me.” Released on a small label called Keen Records, the song stunned the music industry when it soared to No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts and made Cooke the first gospel superstar to “cross over” to secular pop, a development that, with no exaggeration, altered the course of popular music. From 1958 until his murder in December of 1964, Cooke was one of the most successful singers of his day, a versatile performer who wrote his own material, owned his own publishing, and ran his own record label in an era in which it was rare for any artist to do such things.
Regina King’s new film, One Night in Miami, based on the play by Kemp Powers, is an often-moving fictional rendering of the evening of Feb. 25, 1964, when a young Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) shocked the world by defeating reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. The majority of the film unfolds in the bout’s immediate aftermath, when Clay (played by Eli Goree) celebrated his victory in the company of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke himself (Leslie Odom Jr.). In the movie’s imagining, the conversations and conflicts of the evening inspire Cooke to complete his iconic composition “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a performance of which on The Tonight Show sets up the film’s closing montage. (This performance did in fact occur, but all tape has sadly been lost.)
One Night in Miami is “great men” history, in which already larger-than-life figures become burdened with allegory. Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is the closest to a fully written character, but both Clay and Brown are broad and vague, and the complete avoidance of Brown’s well-chronicled history of abuse rankles in a film with barely any female characters. Interactions between them often seem both broadly didactic and overly precise, the characters reduced to ideological vessels, their every utterance shaded with historical foreshadowing. To use a sports analogy, the screenplay often feels like it’s aiming its pitches.
But most frustrating is the way One Night in Miami treats Cooke. I’ve written about Cooke myself at some length and (entirely subjectively) consider Cooke to be the greatest singer who’s ever walked the face of the earth; no other voice has such a limitless capacity to move me. Odom’s performance isn’t the problem: He’s an excellent singer who uses the film as an opportunity to deliver one of the better Cooke impersonations this side of Rod Stewart. But the film’s rendering of Cooke’s career is irresponsible at best and deceptive at worst. Movies play fast and loose with historical accuracy all the time, but One Night in Miami so drastically distorts the facts of Cooke’s life and work that it actually sells short his artistry, a strange move for a film that’s generally at ease with hagiography.
In a pivotal sequence, Malcolm X castigates Cooke for his lack of political commitment by derisively playing him a few of Cooke’s own recordings on a turntable, excoriating him for courting white audiences through frivolous love songs. Then he cues up Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in order to show Cooke the more righteous path he could be going down. “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a huge hit, Malcolm tells Cooke: How can you claim protest music doesn’t sell? (In fact, the version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that hit the charts wasn’t Dylan’s but Peter, Paul, and Mary’s—Dylan’s version wasn’t even released as a single—but the filmmakers presumably felt that the trio’s tweedy harmonies would muddy Malcom’s point.) By the end of the film, Cooke has taken Malcom’s advice to heart, resulting in “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which today stands as one of the most powerful musical signifiers of the civil rights era and a landmark of American protest art.
The influence of “Blowin’ in the Wind” on “A Change Is Gonna Come” is well documented, particularly in Peter Guralnick’s magnificent 2005 Cooke biography, Dream Boogie, but the movie has to mischaracterize Cooke’s previous career in order to make “Change” seem like a bigger leap than it was. For starters, the two recordings of Cooke’s that Malcolm plays are the aforementioned “You Send Me” and Cooke’s version of “For Sentimental Reasons,” both of which were recorded in 1957, seven years prior to the events of the film. (“For Sentimental Reasons” is also a mid-1940s standard first popularized by Nat King Cole; if fictional Malcom is going to knock Cooke’s songwriting, he could at least stick to songs he actually wrote.)
Even by the early 1960s, Cooke’s songwriting had evolved past the formula he rode to success with “You Send Me,” a lovely if lyrically banal confection. In 1960 Cooke had a No. 2 pop hit with “Chain Gang,” a rumination on prison labor whose infectious hook and upbeat tempo deftly offset the starkness of its lyrics. In 1962, Cooke released the extraordinary single “Having a Party” backed with “Bring It On Home to Me,” the former a sublime party record stalked with subtle melancholy, the latter a stunning, gospel-infused duet with Lou Rawls that found Cooke reworking parts of both Charles Brown’s “I Want to Go Home” and the 19th-century anti-slavery song “Oh Freedom” into a desperate love cry. “Bring It On Home” is one of the great pop recordings of the early 1960s and stands among Cooke’s most enduring compositions, performed by everyone from Aretha Franklin to John Lennon to Martina McBride.
The last two singles that Cooke released prior to his murder were “Good Times” and “That’s Where It’s At,” the former of which appeared on Ain’t That Good News, the same LP that housed “A Change Is Gonna Come.” “Good Times” took the latent blues of “Having a Party” and foregrounded them. “We’re gonna stay here till we soothe our souls/ if it takes all night long,” sings Cooke on the chorus, a lingering minor chord suggesting that it might take much longer. “That’s Where It’s At” is a smoldering, mid-tempo R&B burner and a vivid dissection of desire: “Your heart, beating fast/ you’re knowing that time will pass/ but a-hoping that it lasts/ that’s where it’s at.” These are compositions of astonishing depth, the existential ruminations of an artist approaching middle age disguised as music for teenagers.
Ignoring this trajectory in favor of a misbegotten belief that Cooke’s post-gospel, pre-“Change” output was an indiscernible mass of silly love songs until he “found himself” with his protest masterpiece is not a new tactic. (I write extensively about this narrative of Cooke’s career in my own book, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.) Some of this is likely born of ignorance. After all, Cooke’s two most famous compositions might still be “You Send Me” and “A Change Is Gonna Come”—they are surely his most historically significant—and if you didn’t know much more of his work, you might invent a story trying to explain how in the world the same guy wrote both of them. This narrative also indulges our yin for tragedy. Cooke’s death at age 33 is heartbreaking enough, but it takes on Shakespearean dimensions if we believe he was on the brink of epiphany.
But it also speaks to a long-standing tendency to consider Black music in reductive terms of racial authenticity and obligation, the idea that certain types of artistic and commercial ambition equate to “selling out” in any number of senses. (Ironically, many of the most vocal proponents of this view have been white.) It’s a syllogistic and subtly reactionary view that views Black artistry solely in terms of a narrowly prescribed binary of purity vs. dilution. One Night in Miami does seem fitfully interested in this tension—at one point, Cooke pushes back on Malcolm’s critiques, countering that by playing the culture-industry game, he has opened new doors for Black performers. And indeed, the argument that the economic rewards of “selling out” offer their own form of freedom might appeal to Kemp Powers himself, who recently took a Walt Disney check to co-write and co-direct the Pixar film Soul.
But One Night in Miami still can’t keep itself from caricaturing Cooke’s pre-“Change” pop career as being defined by accommodationist false consciousness and fudging its history in order to do so. In one of the movie’s first scenes, we see Cooke onstage at Manhattan’s famed Copacabana nightclub, bombing before an older, square, white audience that’s openly hostile to his presence as he tries to win them over with his “safe” material. This Copa performance is referenced multiple times throughout the film, hurled in his face as evidence of a pathological desire for white approval.
That ill-fated Copa performance did, in fact, happen, but it took place in 1958, not 1963, as the film implies. What One Night in Miami leaves out is that, in July of 1964, Cooke returned to the Copa, this time for a triumphant two-week stand. RCA recorded a live album during the engagement, Sam Cooke at the Copa, that finds the singer performing, among other songs, a buoyant cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Released two months before Cooke’s murder, nothing about the recording sounds like an artist intimidated by his audience.
In critical discussion of Cooke’s live output, the Copa album generally takes a backseat to the (rightly) more famous Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, Cooke’s recording at a predominantly Black Miami nightclub that’s probably one of the two or three greatest live R&B albums ever made. It’s tempting to hear the Harlem Square Club album as the “real” Cooke and Copa as the compromised fake. But it’s all the same Sam Cooke, just like the same guy wrote “You Send Me” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the same extraordinary, miraculous musical talent. The fact that one singer possessed such versatility is, in no small degree, the crux of his significance; to cast it as a character flaw is parochial and unimaginative. The best response to astonishing artists isn’t to invent stories explaining them. It’s simply to be astonished.