Sam Pollard’s film, Sammy Davis, Jr. I’ve Gotta Be Me investigates the many faceted, eternally shining entertainer, Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990). Davis, Jr. broke racial barriers and pushed the envelope for people of color when a Jim Crow South was oppressing blacks and in many instances was killing them rather than giving them their constitutional right to vote in the United States. Pollard’s documentary emphasizes themes which resonate today.
Throughout his life, Sammy Davis, Jr. refused to look at “what is.” Instead, he lived his life creating what “should be.” For the most part, he succeeded. Because of him great strides were taken in the field of entertainment with regard to integration and inclusion. And strides were taken with regard to “race mixing.” He was color blind. He saw a culture and society that would eventually rise to his perception that greatness was the ability to stand in each other’s shoes.
We are not there yet. However, in revealing Davis, Jr.’s struggles to “turn the other cheek,” to forge ahead despite the racism and discrimination that threatened to overwhelm his soul and stifle his love for people, Pollard mentors how we should be. Like Davis, Jr., Pollard’s film suggests we should rise to our finer selves and step away from the brutal stupidity of narrow-mindedness and fear of “the other.”
If one grew up in the 1950s-70s, one knows the ubiquitous media presence of Sammy Davis, Jr. You would have seen him on TV shows, in film, in Las Vegas shows with the Rat Pack, and in television and radio interviews. His life was and is a brilliant gemstone. It remains a beacon for all of us, regardless of our religion or color. His life exemplifies that nothing is impossible if one strives to be the best that one can be, and even risks failure to find the strength to develop one’s innate gifts. Only then is one able to evolve intellectually, spiritually, and humanly. For decades Sammy honed his talent (dancing, singing, playing instruments, doing impressions, acting), and was non pareil, a maverick unlike any other celebrity.
Pollard’s account is culled from film clips of his performances and interview clips (Toddy Boyd, Gerald Early, Margo Jefferson, Max Rudin, Willl Friedwald, Jason King, Billy Crystal, Paula Wayne, Jerry Lewis, Tony Curtis, etc.), of those who studied his life, worked with him, loved him, befriended him. Pollard’s organizational skills are prodigious. He selects some of the finest moments in Davis, Jr.’s career and uses Davis, Jr.’s own commentary during interviews to fill in salient details. He reveals Sammy was a renaissance man who excelled as a hoofer, a singer, an impressionist, a survivor, a rebel, an activist, and a hipster.
Beginning with an interview clip where Davis, Jr. discusses winning $10.00 in a competition when he was three years old (his quips are humorous and I won’t spoil them here), Pollard follows up with black and white clips of Sammy singing and dancing in a film short with Ethel Waters when he was around seven-years-old (Rufus Jones for President-1933). Pollard chronicles his entertainment history and life’s struggles (his love of Kim Novak who was white, his marriage to May Britt who was white, the loss of his eye in a car accident, etc.). He includes his mentors and milestone performances on The Colgate Hour with Eddie Kantor, at Ciros, his appearances on TV shows, and electric performances in Vegas with his Rat Pack friends (Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin). He reveals the dynamism and courage of Davis, Jr.’s performance in Golden Boy on Broadway; his is the first public kiss between himself and Paula Wayne who is white. Pollard follows these triumphs and shows how Davis Jr. at times foundered in his attempt to stay current with the changing times and cultural tastes of the 1970s and 1980s.
The chronology is wide. Pollard’s account spans Davis, Jr.’s 6 decades in show business. He delves into how Davis, Jr. configured his entertainment from the time he begin with his Dad and “uncle” tap dancing and singing with the Will Mastin trio to Sammy’s 60th year in show business with the celebrity-studded gala celebration televised in 1990. There are pointed clips of the evening. The love that his fellow celebrities evidenced is tangible. Their appreciation and recognition for all that Davis, Jr. accomplished in his life as a human being and as the “greatest entertainer of the twentieth century” is the capstone of Pollard’s documentary tribute to this giant of a man.
At the time of the gala Davis, Jr. was dying of throat cancer and refused to be operated on, accepting radiation instead of surgery. He doesn’t sing, but he does perform and we understand his fearlessness as a tap dancer, when at 64-years-old (dying), we see him dance with the fine Gregory Hines. In voice-over-commentary, we learn that Davis, Jr. joked with Hines to the effect that Hines had better step up his game because Sammy was “on.” Among the numerous celebrities present and despite his dislike of television appearances Michael Jackson sang, a poignant moment. If you haven’t seen Sammy Davis, Jr.’s 60th gala celebration, the film is a superb memorium to Davis Jr. and others who have passed.
Director Pollard proves that this mega talent with the heart of a lion was a trailblazer and a beloved American treasure, recognized by those who appreciated his tireless work ethic to achieve perfection. Even if one was/is a racist, one has to admit he was amazing. A key element of Sammy Davis, Jr. the man, was his desire to make racists color blind for those moments he entertained, told jokes, did impersonations of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, etc., tapped out incredible rhythms with his feet, or interpreted a song with profound emotional nuance.
Everything Davis, Jr. did in his career, he did with love and the willingness to please others in the hope of revealing, “Yes, I am a black man, but if you will allow me to entertain you, perhaps you will hate black folks a bit less.” It is this uplifting attitude which Pollard beautifully translates into the film as he threads this icon’s life history replete with foibles and fabulousnesses, during some of the most discouraging events in the latter twentieth century: the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and the numerous killings to stop the furtherance of the Civil Rights Movement.
Pollard’s film is memorable in how it strikes a somber light on these decades of conflict. Davis, Jr. is a symbol of that time. He reflected key moments in our history. With grace he led Americans quietly toward their own personal, social revolution.
The portrait of the man and the reality of the America he lived in is a vital one. We recognize that the image of this country was not an idyllic wonderland as some politicians suggest and want to return to. As long as discrimination and oppression abide, no one can be assured that they are experiencing peace. This is especially so if they have to achieve their peace at the point of a gun, or with tiki torches that manifest hatred and fear.
Pollard’s Sammy Davis, Jr. I’ve Gotta Be Me presents one whose eyes were opened to see what reality was, and who had a sustained vision to lead the charge to improve social circumstances for all. He accomplished this sometimes flamboyantly, but always humanly. And change did come with time. It came to citizens who were oppressed by their self-imposed fear and cowardice, too weak to understand how discrimination and hatred were destroying their own humanity while challenging their victims’ to gain moral power and triumph.
This film is a must see for all patriotic Americans who love their country and embrace the constitution and principles of equal opportunity, concepts now under siege politically and socially in various areas of the country. Sammy Davis, Jr.’s life emboldens the finest of American principles and embodies the finest of human traits: the ability to change one’s perspective and overcome obstacles borne by racial hatreds.
You will enjoy the archived material and the sheer breadth of enthusiasm and beauty of the man who was Sammy Davis, Jr. Pollard’s documentary was in its World Premiere at Toronto Film Festival and is a part of the American Masters series. Look for it on TV and elsewhere.