Dueling documentaries spark interest in alleged murder conspiracy
By Stephanie Gadlin
More than five decades after influential musician and soul singer Sam Cooke was mysteriously killed, people continue to be fascinated with the case and whether or not he was assassinated because of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and his resistance to having his publishing ‘taken over by the mob.’
Cooke, the iconic, 33-year-old activist and business mogul from Chicago was murdered December 11, 1964 at a seedy Los Angeles motel after allegedly being robbed by a 22-year-old woman, later said to be a call girl.
Officially, the case was ruled justifiable homicide when the 55-year-old hotel manager, Bertha Franklin, claimed she had shot and beaten the singer to death in self-defense and despite his celebrity, she didn’t know who he was.
The sudden and violent death of the hitmaker, who produced chart-topping songs such as “A Change is Gonna Come,” “What A Wonderful World,” “You Send Me,” and “Having A Party,” rocked Black America. More than 200,00 people viewed his remains at A.R. Leak Funeral Home and over 15,000 flocked to Tabernacle Baptist Church for his funeral on January 2, 1965. Thousands more attended a second set of services in California, where he was later buried.
However, as more details emerged in the events offered by police, the community became alarmed. Their concerns, combined with the fact that the singer was being surveilled by the FBI due to his ties to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and because he had fought to keep whites from stealing his lucrative entertainment empire, fueled a number of conspiracy theories that have yet to be satisfied.
Now researchers and amateur sleuths alike have begun to explore the case again with renewed interest, thanks to two new, and dueling documentaries specifically dedicated to the singer’s murder.
Jean-Alexander Ntivyihabwa, the executive producer of the 2017 documentary, “Lady You Shot Me: The Life and Death of Sam Cooke,” told the Crusader that while he was enthusiastic about the possibility of reopening Cooke’s case, he is not pleased that a competing project allegedly ripped off his film without permission or so much as a credit.
Speaking from his Hamburg, Germany, production house, SMP Signed Media Produktion GmbH & Co. KG, Ntivyihabwa says Netflix’s “ReMastered” docu series episode, “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke,” is a blatant ripoff of his film and he’s now demanding answers. The film made its debut on the streaming channel on February 8th of this year.
“It is a blatant ripoff,” Ntivyihabwa said.
“Lady You Shot Me,” directed by David Czarnetzki, became available for consumers in the U.S. this month via Amazon Prime. It premiered in the U.S. on Public Broadcasting System (PBS) also earlier this year. It differs slightly in the Netflix offering by delving more into Cooke’s business interests and the subsequent theft of his publishing rights after his death.
Ntivyihabwa said he became interested in the story while studying Black culture. As the son of a German woman and a Burundi, African father, he said he had always been searching throughout the Diaspora for anything that could connect him to his culture.
“I’ve always been fascinated with American soul music and the power of Sam Cooke,” said Ntivyihabwa. “It was sometime around 2012 when I first started thinking of doing this project. After some time, I finally was able to get “Lady You Shot Me,” financed by ZDF/Arte in 2015. We shot it in April 2016 and aired it in France and Germany in May 2017.
“So you can imagine my surprise when I found out [the other film] was coming out with a similar documentary,” filmmaker Ntivyihabwa said. “Then I remembered that some guy had contacted me via email while we were editing our film, asking to see our research. We declined and thought nothing of it until Netflix aired “The Two Killings” this year. I was shocked to see they had nearly copied most of what we had done—all the way down to having the same people interviewed in the same clothes and saying the exact same thing they said in our film.”
Attempts to reach a representative from Netflix or All Rise Films, the producers of the Cooke documentary, were unsuccessful. However, Ntivyihabwa told this writer, “This is not a coincidence. We found out that this is the same company that has been sued by another film company saying that they stole their idea about Bob Marley,” he said.
In 2018, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist were sued for allegedly stealing the concept for Netflix’s music documentary series, “ReMastered.” They were accused in a lawsuit of plagiarizing parts of ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ described by plaintiffs as exploring “the controversies and conspiracy theories behind the separate and unrelated shootings in Jamaica of two of the world’s most famous reggae stars, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh,” according to trade magazine the Hollywood Reporter.
“I just want the public to know that this is not really their idea,” Ntivyihabwa continued, “and [especially a documentary] with the same content and the same [presentation of] facts. The research has been done, but done by us, and not by them.”
Accusations of copying are not uncommon, particularly in documentaries where people are limited by facts, chronology and the living witnesses available to them, said veteran entertainment Attorney Dalia Saber. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are similarities [between the two films]… But again, it’s going to be an uphill battle [seeking legal remedy] anytime you’re dealing with books or creative works where you are not accusing someone of direct plagiarism but instead of copying the feel or the narrative,” she said.
“Unless you are literally copying footage from one documentary and using it in another it’s going to be an uphill battle to claim copyright infringement,” Saber added.
Ntivyihabwa agreed. “After consulting my lawyer in Berlin, I did not file a cease and desist letter to Netflix. I was told, that the basic story is not fictional and therefore not protected by law,” he said. “The theft of intellectual property is difficult to prove. It would be very risky and expensive to sue Netflix.”
In the meantime, the German filmmaker said he was working to raise money to possibly do a sequel to his film if he can raise more money. “I have something they don’t know about,” he said. “We found Elisa Boyer, the woman who was with Cooke in that motel the night he was killed. We hired a private eye to find her and we did. I decided not to use the interview because she was quite feeble, and I could not tell if she was simply playing a role or really in poor shape.
“Either way, I’m thinking she remains the key and now maybe her conscience will allow her to tell the truth about what happened that night,” Ntivyihabwa said, refusing to disclose the woman’s location. “There’s a lot more to this story and if there is any consolation here it is that maybe my film will spark an investigation into what really happened to Sam. It has already sparked a copycat.”