Samuel D. Pollard, award-winning feature film and television video editor, and documentary producer/director recently completed work on Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me which had its World Premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. Pollard’s work spans 30 years during which time he edited a number of Spike Lee’s films.
Pollard and Lee also co-produced a number of documentary productions for the small and big screen: Spike Lee Presents Mike Tyson, a biographical sketch for HBO for which Pollard received an Emmy; Four Little Girls, a feature-length documentary about the 1963 Birmingham church bombings that was nominated for an Academy Award; and When The Levees Broke, a four-part documentary that won numerous awards, including a Peabody and three Emmy Awards.
Five years later, he co-produced and supervised the edit on the follow up to Levees, If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise. Since 2012, Pollard has produced and directed the documentary Slavery By Another Name (2012); American Masters documentary August Wilson: The Ground On Which I Stand (2015); documentary Two Trains Runnin’ (2016); and The Talk: Race in America (2017) for PBS.
I spoke with Sam Pollard in a phone interview. We discussed his TIFF documentary about Sammy Davis, Jr.
Thanks so much for your time, Sam. Let’s start with what your documentary is about.
Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me looks at the very complicated life of the fabulous entertainer in the twentieth century, Sammy Davis Jr. who was a wonderful dancer, singer, impressionist, actor, comedian and professional musician. He was born in Harlem and grew up touring the country with his father, Sammy Davis Sr. and his uncle Will Mastin. The film shows how he struggled to find success and by the late forties and early fifties he did find that success. But he always had to struggle being a black man in America, because it was at the height of segregation.
The film also looks at the very complex relationships he had with many people in his life from Frank Sinatra to Kim Novak, to Richard Nixon to Harry Belafonte, to Martin Luther King Jr. It reveals how he went against the grain of most people who were anti-Vietnam War in society. He went to Vietnam to entertain the troops. And it looks at how he struggled with what it meant to be a black man in America. I think it’s a very powerful look at the individual.
What were some of the things you found interesting that you had not known before about Sammy Davis Jr.?
I grew up watching Sammy on TV and in the movies, though I never saw him live. One of the things that was fascinating for me to learn when I was doing the research and putting the film together was about his dancing. I always knew he was a good tap dancer. But I had never really seen extensive footage of him tap dancing. So one of the amazing things we uncovered in doing the film was wonderful material from the late 1950s, a television show where he did phenomenal tap dancing with two solo drummers. In the footage, you just saw the breadth of his ability to tap dance what he had learned from people like Bill Robinson (Bill Bojangles Robinson the premiere, legendary tap dancer who used his popularity and celebrity to help others break through the color barrier and helped shepherd and support many like Fred Astaire, Lena Horne, Jesse Owens, etc.) and others. So that was one of the things I learned.
The second thing I learned, and this was from my research and reading both of his autobiographies and other books about Sammy, was how complex his relationship was with white women. I learned how he was in love with Kim Novak; how he fell in love with May Britt; how he struggled to deal with being with these white women in a society when it was looked upon not very positively for black men to be with a white woman. I mean he tells stories of how when he was married to May Britt, he would resist going out with her in the streets of New York because he was concerned about the kind of backlash he would get. He tells stories about how he would secretly go to visit Kim Novak and not tell anyone because the flak he might get from not only the white press but even the black press. Neither would like his breaking taboos that “you shouldn’t be breaking.”
I also learned that, though I had seen him do many wonderful impressions, for example, James Stewart, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, that when he first started doing these impressions, both his uncle and his father were aghast. They were frightened because never before did a black man have the nerve to do impressions of white performers, and to do it on a national level. So there were a lot of things I learned about Sammy. And even with all the struggles and the flak he caught as a black man in America, he was still an American. He was invited to the White House by Richard Nixon, a Republican, and he was invited to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom. These things made Sammy ecstatic and excited about being an American. So like W. E. B. Du Bois said, he lived with a double consciousness as a black man in America and he struggled with that all the time.
If the film brings that out, that’s great because white people don’t know the half of what black people have gone through, especially if they are not well read. I don’t mean to be demeaning, but they don’t.
Well, you know, here we are in the 21st century and white people still don’t know it. You know it’s sort of amazing that with all this history we’ve been through and confronted in the last 50 years with Dr. King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement and the March on Washington and the struggle with equality in America, yet here we are with President Trump in office. Many white people still don’t understand what black people have gone through in this country. And some of them don’t care.
I think this film is happening at a very important time. Could you talk about that?
It’s an important film because here we are in 2017. We just elected a man who is the complete opposite of the president we elected before. We had taken a major step in electing the first African American president of the United States. But it goes to prove that now that Trump is the president of the United States, America is still hanging on to this notion that this country is white and that the people of color should be considered second class citizens.
This is something that Sammy struggled with like many black artists and entertainers and black people in general have struggled with in the twentieth century. You would think that in 2017 there would be some real enlightenment in America. When we see the images that have been televised in Charlottesville, Virginia it shows you that hatred. The images show that this feeling about being better than other people is still at the heart of what made America in many ways.
It’s frightening for me, because here I am, a 67 year-old-man who was alive and living in the 60s. I witnessed the March on Washington, and the Voting Rights Act. I witnessed when King was assassinated and Malcolm was assassinated and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Yet, here we are still going through this same craziness. So a film like Sammy Davis Jr. I’ve Gotta Be Me hopefully will open some people’s eyes and folks will say, “Look, we can’t keep repeating the same thing.”
These attitudes and notions are genocidal. They harm everyone because if people are trying to keep others back, then no one gets ahead!
Nobody at all. But somehow there’s part of America where they don’t get it. And they don’t get that this America that they believe that they grew up in and grew up with the images on television in the 1950s and 1960s, they think that America still exists. It never did exist. And it still won’t exist at all because people of color are populating America. (It’s a fact that people of color will be the majority and whites will be the minority in a few decades.)
The interview with Sam Pollard discussing Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me continues in Part II on Blogcritics.