The award-winning director Samuel D. Pollard completed work on Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Blogcritics writer Carole Di Tosti sat down with the director at this year’s TIFF. This is part two of her interview. Part one can be found here.
Unfortunately, the attitude holds onto the worst of what humankind is, instead of the best.
That’s exactly right.
I remember Sammy Davis Jr. as a kid. I thought he was fabulous and a part of that fabulousness allowed him to break the color bar. Could you talk about how he was able to do that?
There was a section in the film where Sammy was in the armed services. He struggled with being beaten and painted on (soldiers in his unit painted him white) on and spit at. He tells a story where he’s online and this white soldier and he got into a fight. He knocked the white man down and broke his nose. And the white man looked at him and said, “Well, you won the fight, but you’re still a nigger.” And Sammy realized that at that point in his life that his fists were not going to be the thing that would change people’s lives, for him. So he realized that he had to be the best that he could be: the best singer, the best impressionist, the best dancer, the best actor. And he went out and proved that.
And we’ve seen it. I saw it, you saw it. I saw him on the Ed Sullivan Show. I saw him with The Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop entertained at various casinos in Las Vegas, Nevada). I saw his movies like Ocean’s Eleven. He was always trying to break down those barriers. And when he did the play Golden Boy on Broadway, he was the first black man to kiss a white woman on the Broadway stage. These are phenomenal, pattern breaking actions he was doing. He had to be frightened about some of these activities, but he was also courageous to step out and do them. And that was the way he had to fight. People of color have always had to come up with ways to fight all the racism and the anger. This was the way that Sammy did it. And for the most part, he was pretty successful at it.
I would say he was very successful, but I don’t know the ins and outs and in your documentary, I’m sure you go into that. I did see him in Golden Boy. He was electric, ground-breaking. The audience so responded to him the night I was there that he sang a song for us after the performance. My cousin Ben Di Tosti, a pianist and composer said, “Sammy hasn’t come out to sing for the audience in a long while because the accompanist started off in the wrong key.” It was a memorable night for all of us. He was fabulous live. How did you get involved, Sam, with this project?
You know, I’ve done previous American Masters (award-winning Samuel D. Pollard has an extensive resume producing, directing and editing). Michael Kantor (producer), and Larry Maslon (writer) had put together the project and started to research the project four or five years ago. They reached out to me and because I had done documentaries on Marvin Gaye and August Wilson. They asked me to come onboard to direct. For me, one of the things I learned many years ago as a black filmmaker and filmmaker of color is that it’s important to be able to document our stories, to document the stories of the people we think have left important milestones. So when Michael asked me if I was interested in directing the film, I immediately said yes.
Did you grow up in the North or the South.
I grew up in New York City, Harlem.
That’s kind of fortunate in a way.
Well, you know, my family is from Mississippi. My father’s from Mississippi and my mother’s family is from Georgia. They were there in the early 1920s. How life was in the South? I heard that from my uncle, my father, my aunt. And I could see it even back in the 1970s when I went South to a small town in Mississippi where my father was from. I went into a general store. The white lady, the proprietor of the store was following me around the store to make sure I wasn’t going to steal anything. I was just looking, but that’s the same attitude that is prevalent back in the 1970s.
For this project what would you like Americans, those who adore and admire Sammy Davis Jr., those who don’t know him, and those who are not inclined to be accepting of him because of his color (racists) to come away with?
This is what I hope happens. I hope that people realize that he was a phenomenal human being. Here was a black man who was a phenomenal entertainer. He could do anything. He was a real renaissance man in terms of being able to perform and sing and dance and all that he could do to entertain. The other thing I would hope they understand is that even with all that talent that he had, he still had to deal with the brickbat of being a black man in America in the twentieth century.
I hope they realize the struggles he had to constantly face. He was not able to go in the front door of certain clubs. He had to ride in the “colored car” on trains traveling around the country. He had to hide his relationship with Kim Novak. He felt afraid going out on the streets of New York City in the early 1960s with his second wife May Britt, who was white. He had fear going down to Selma, Alabama when Dr. King Jr. and Harry Belafonte asked him to go down there and support the movement. These are all the things he had to constantly deal with and at the same time he had to carve out a successful career. I hope that people come away with understanding all the aspects of this man.
Yes. And how does one do all he did and not be bitter?
It’s an amazing resilience. You got to give it to him. He did this without being bitter and cynical and hating all white people. He had an amazing resilience. But you know the truth of it is that black people have always been able to do this.
That is what I think is a theme of the film. Sammy Davis Jr. converted to Judaism. Was he Christian?
Not institutional Christianity.
No. By the 1950s I think he was searching for something else in his life, something other than what was present in his life at the time. He became attached to Judaism.
Well, the Klan is supposedly Christian. I’m Christian and if they are Christian, then theirs is faux Christianity because they hate. The history of institutional Christianity is appalling. Did he look at that and say I’ll convert to Judaism? Or did he have a spiritual faith?
He had a spiritual faith. And I think that just grew and evolved. I think his daily living, what he struggled with and the fact that he lost his eye, all these things probably played a part in his wanting to convert.
That makes sense because there is the idea of loving and trying to forgive.
He knew all about that. He was trying to forgive all the time and trying to be a loving human being.
How could he get as far as he did if he didn’t forgive and throw off the bitterness after that lesson he learned, as you said, in the armed services?
He knew that using his fists (violence, revenge) wasn’t going to be the way for him. And it usually is not the way for most of us.
I think that is another subtle theme in the film. That hate doesn’t work. It never does and it never will. His life reflected that. Could you talk a little bit about your next project and how the Sammy Davis Jr. project relates, if it does?
The next project I’m finishing up now is a documentary about another trailblazer, Maynard Jackson the first black mayor of Atlanta, Georgia in the early 1970s. He was the mayor of that city for three terms. He understood that to break the boundaries of resistance, he had to work inside. He had seen what Dr. King Jr. and people like Ralph Abernathy through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Jesse Jackson had done, but he felt that he could make changes within the system.
He became the mayor of Atlanta in the early 1970s and was a real trailblazer. He helped shape the Atlanta airport into one of the greatest airports, not only in America but in the world. And he was a leader in employing Affirmative Action. I think that a lot of us have been beneficiaries of that. Mayor Jackson set the tone. I just finished wrapping that film up. It will be playing in a festival sometime this year.
The subjects are similar. Both men are trailblazers, mavericks and very courageous, not allowing hatred and bitterness to drag them down and suppress all of their gifts.
You said it succinctly.
I will look for your film about Maynard Jackson, Mayor of Atlanta screening in upcoming festivals. And you did another film about slavery. Is it about economic slavery in this country?
It looks at how, though slavery was supposed to be abolished after the Emancipation Proclamation, how there was still a form of slavery. It was done with mass incarceration of black men in prison and black women in prison during the Civil War and after the period of Reconstruction. And this form of slavery continues from the 1880s on up until the 1940s. I based the film on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery By Another Name, by Douglas A. Blackmon.
It’s been an honor to talk to you, Sam Pollard, director of Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me.
Look for Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me on American Masters. The film is directed by Samuel D. Pollard, written by Laurence Maslon and produced by Sally Rosenthal and Michael Kantor (executive producer).