I had the good fortune last week to see a screening of the fantastic new documentary Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, which was playing at the Jewish International Film Festival in Sydney, Australia. Having had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film festival in September, the documentary is currently making the rounds of various festivals across America and the globe.
The film is everything that a Sammy aficionado could possibly want from a 100-minute documentary on the life of the most talented entertainer of the 20th Century: it is loving, without being hagiographical, and it is detailed, without getting bogged down by trivia. Artfully structured, the documentary takes a thematic approach to examining the various aspects of Sammy’s life and talent, but interweaves a lightly chronological approach throughout.
Sammy’s abundant talent is appropriately showcased using plenty of archival TV and film footage, all of which is beautifully presented, including clips of Sammy’s appearance on The Colgate Comedy Hour with Eddie Cantor in 1952, and rarely seen footage from 1959’s Porgy and Bess. In addition, the documentary features scores of newly uncovered photographs taken both of Sammy, and by Sammy.
At this concerning juncture in American history, the film is certainly relevant today; the controversy over black players’ protests in the NFL and the Nazi rally in Charlottesville provide troubling context for Sammy’s stories of facing racism in the Army, living under Jim Crow, and being picketed by Nazis for marrying the woman he loves. Sammy’s life-long struggle for approval – first from white audiences in the 1950s, and then from black audiences during the 1970s – is explored with understanding and nuance. Sammy was a complicated person as well as an amazing talent.
The filmmakers assembled a diverse roster of Sammy’s friends and colleagues, plus insightful cultural commentators, to give the documentary a feeling of immediacy and authenticity. Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, and Kim Novak are all featured, as well as authors such as Will Friedwald and Gerald Early. Paula Wayne (Sammy’s Broadway co-star in the controversial musical Golden Boy) in particular provides some of the film’s most poignant and revealing moments.
Sammy’s proper place as a groundbreaking entertainer is cemented by this documentary. Given time restraints, some aspects of Sammy’s life and career were not included – e.g. his first musical Mr. Wonderful, his third wife Altovise Gore, his career renaissance in the 1980s – however there is nothing in the film you could have removed to make way for such content.
Director Sam Pollard, Writer Laurence Maslon and Producers Sally Rosenthal and Michael Kantor have done an outstanding job, and fans of Sammy Davis, Jr. can only hope that the success of this documentary spurs more interest in Sammy’s life and achievements. The film is a production of American Masters Pictures, and in addition to appearances at other film festivals, it will presumably air on PBS in the United States as part of the American Masters series in 2018.