A 2014 documentary, “Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark,” is now streaming on Netflix. The film provides poignant insights into the musician’s personal and public life, including how he dealt with racial tension in the U.S.
Nat King Cole, 1919-1965
I will confess to knowing precious little about Nat King Cole, except for some of his best known songs. The movie “Ray” depicted Ray Charles performing “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” and then, of course, there was “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” and “Unforgettable.” In fact, I didn’t know how little I knew about Cole until I watched the documentary. Some artists who become legends, take on a quality of being a part of the American fabric, and the public takes them for granted.
What strikes me after the fact is Cole’s brief lifespan. In that time, America was still struggling with equality for all women and blacks. The race issue remained a problem throughout Cole’s life.
These struggles are relevant to Cole’s story because his approach to race relations forms the documentary’s title. According to the film and newspaper articles from the period, problems arose when Cole purchased a house in a segregated Hollywood neighborhood in 1948.
Cole and his family’s appearance sparked protests. A racial epithet was burned into the family’s lawn, and the family dog was poisoned. To all of this, according to Cole’s second wife, the musician remarked, “They’re afraid of the dark.” Dark, in this case, refers to black people.
In the face of adversity, it appears Cole never lost his cool. It also seems as though the quality of his work remained stellar. This is another documentary whose thorough examination of a public figure, encourages audiences to appreciate the person behind the mystique.
Nat King Cole and a new era of pop and jazz
Aside from the dark moments in America’s racial history, the story of an icon like Cole would be incomplete without the insights from musicians who worked with him. Legendary performers as Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett show up in archival footage and then-current interviews. Each has a glowing review of Cole and what he was able to do as a performer.
Cole was always well-dressed, and his diction was flawless. From all accounts he was a precocious learner, and what I gathered was that he was kind, and maybe even mellow. Even when his love life suffered upheavals and he was divorced and remarried quickly, it didn’t seem to make him bitter or shake his confidence. Perhaps that is the other part of the Cole mystique–he was confident. He knew what steps he wanted to take and he took them. That is a lesson people should learn whether they are musicians or not.
Cole worked with Nelson Riddle to craft some of his best-known songs. Riddle was an arranger, composer and bandleader. He is largely credited with inventing pop music as understood by modern audiences. Riddle’s sons participate in the documentary and their descriptions of both their father and Cole are moving and enlightening.
A successful music documentary takes audiences behind the music and the legend. It will put a performer in the context of personal and public history and allows audiences to see truths for themselves.
The particular joy in this documentary was learning that the kind-hearted man in the dapper suits, singing timeless songs forever in black-and-white footage, was that same man offstage. An engrossing and illuminating film.