Sam Pollard’s Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, premiering this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, is not simply a homage to one of America’s most extraordinary entertainers. It is biography at its very best: an attempt to uncover, through scholarly discourse, as well as apocryphal stories, archival photographs and film, and the historical moment, one man’s unique and complicated personality. The documentary begins with the most controversial aspect of the Harlem-born performer’s life and career, that of his ambivalence to his African-American identity.
In an interview with Biography.com, Pollard reflected on his documentary’s consideration of the claim that Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990) was a “house Negro,” an African-American who catered to white sensibilities. “Sammy’s struggle was to make it as an entertainer,” Pollard says. “He thought, as interviewees say in the film, that the way for him to help other black people was to use his skills as a vocalist, dancer, impressionist and actor.” Pollard is an award-winning filmmaker, who began his career as a producer on Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads (1989); he also edited and co-produced feature-length films and documentaries with Spike Lee. Pollard came late to the Sammy Davis, Jr. project, which is an entry in PBS’s ongoing American Masters series.
The opening segment of I’ve Gotta Be Me chronicles the “Rat Pack” years, when Davis performed with friends and fellow vocalists Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Through interviews with pundits, performers, and Davis’s friends and his manager, it addresses that perception that he was a sell-out to his race, especially in his support for Richard Nixon’s presidency. “When he is invited to the Nixon White House and he sleeps in the Lincoln bedroom, that for Sammy was acceptance,” Pollard says, in a telephone conversation from New York City. Nixon’s lack of commitment to Civil Rights was especially apparent when, as a candidate for president in 1960, he failed to make a statement about the lunch counter protest in Atlanta in which Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested.
This memorable section of the film also introduces scholar and author Todd Boyd, comedian Billy Crystal and actor Paula Wayne, who was Davis’s co-star in the Broadway musical Golden Boy. Their on-stage kiss in 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights Era, is heralded in the documentary as a first between a white woman and a black man on the Broadway stage. Crystal, who is especially insightful, opened for Davis as a young comedian. “Billy did the famous Sammy Davis, Jr. imitation on Saturday Night Live,” so it was natural to include him,” Pollard says. “Todd is a very well-rounded cultural critic who understands the African-American artist in all forms of media.” The trio bring different but equally significant perspectives on Davis.
The first segment also features luminous black-and-white footage of Davis’s remarkable screen debut, at age 7, in the 1933 short starring Ethel Waters, Rufus Jones for President. An extended tap dance sequence in that film, and several others on TV, one with drummer Gene Kruppa, and another when Davis was awarded the NAACP’s Springarn Medal, and was quite ill with lung cancer, are reminders of his status as one of America’s most talented dancers—as singular as white tap counterparts Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Whoopi Goldberg, also interviewed in the documentary describes Sammy’s style best when she says that “he dances on air.”
I’ve Gotta Be Me unfolds in several thematic segments, among them “Singer,” “Rebel” and Survivor,” that best represent Pollard’s view of his subject, and a refreshing change from the standard chronological approach to biography. With the exception of far too many disembodied voices in the opening scenes, commenting on Davis’s talents, it is an exceptionally well-directed and well-edited documentary, and is notable for its re-recording mix (by Ed Campbell), which is the film’s final mix of all elements of the soundtrack.
While Sammy Davis, Jr. referred to himself as an African-American, Puerto Rican Jew, in the biography In Black and White (2003), author Wil Haygood claims that his mother, Elvera Sanchez was of Cuban and Afro-Cuban descent. Both she and Davis’s father, Sammy Davis, Sr., were dancers and vaudeville performers. As I’ve Gotta Be Me explains, Davis’s parents separated, and he was estranged from his mother for much of his childhood. “When we watched interviews we found of Mrs. Sanchez, I didn’t feel it was going to give me any great additions to the telling of Sammy’s story,” Pollard says. Sanchez (1905-2000) danced in the chorus line at the Apollo Theater; a local celebrity in New York and New Jersey after her retirement, she was known by her stage moniker, “Baby Sanchez,” In a New York Times obituary, dance historian Delilah Jackson recalls that when Sammy Davis, Jr. made his Apollo debut at 10 years of age, despite years of separation from his mother, he was known as “Baby Sanchez’s son.”
The documentary recounts the story of Davis’s car accident in which he lost his left eye; during his hospital stay, he met a rabbi and converted to Judaism. Friend Frank Sinatra helped Davis to regain his balance so that he could resume tap dancing, always a part of Davis’s stage act. Davis’s marriages, his acquisitive nature, and his later activism, embarked upon after much encouragement from actors Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee, as well as his friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., are all chronicled in I’ve Gotta Be Me. Most touching of all is Pollard’s portrayal of Davis’s vulnerability. “Here is a man who grew up from the age of 3 or 4 being on the stage,” Pollard observes. “He needed the audience’s affirmation all the time. Growing up with that desire, that need for constant affirmation, the slightest thing can make you feel very insecure.”
I’ve Gotta Be Me no doubt benefits from an African-American, Harlem-born director who grew up watching Davis on TV. “On the one hand, Sammy was a wonderfully talented man,” Pollard says, “but on the other hand, he was a black man in America, rejected at times by his people and by the larger world.” After serving in World War II, and being subjected to beatings from racist whites, Davis returned home and joined his father and his “godfather” Will Mastin to form the Will Mastin Trio. He began doing impressions of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, but surprisingly, the older men, fearful of reprisals, told Davis the impressions could not be part of their act. “When we were doing the research, we found some of these interviews with Sammy on the David Frost Show,” Pollard says, “where he talked about their reaction. It was a revelation for me.”
Reflecting on the relevance of Davis’s reluctant activism, Pollard says: “Everybody knows that activism is an ongoing struggle in our community, and when it is about fighting for rights, there are always a lot of people front and center, if only to prove that they are front and center, but the majority really stand back and wait for things to happen.” Pollard, whose previous documentaries, including the most recent one, Two Trains Runnin’ (2016), are all centered on African-American stories, admits that as an artist, he relies on his optimism. “Being a documentary filmmaker and a person of color, you always have to fight the good fight,” he says.