After last year’s comprehensive documentary about O.J. Simpson, the time is now to look at the threshold between being a person of color and a celebrity of color. No person exemplifies those battling dichotomies better than Rat Packer Sammy Davis, Jr. A source of praise as often as he was courting controversy, Davis, Jr. is often maligned as a man too willing to conform to what white audiences wanted from him, while simultaneously being praised as a revolutionary and activist. Sam Pollard’s documentary, Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me looks at the actor’s multiple faces, and his desire for individuality in the midst of massive public consumption.
If your only information on Sammy Davis Jr. involves his friendship with Frank Sinatra there’s a whole lifetime of information waiting to be uncovered. Pollard packages every major element of the man’s life in specific categories, from “hoofer” to “activist.” This covers the various “personas” Davis had throughout his career and allows for a balance of exploration, though it can leave a commercial break quality to the doc.
Davis was a child star, traveling on the “chitlin’ circuit” with his godfather Will Mastin. The young boy made his claim to fame early, starring in the Ethel Waters Vitaphone short Rufus Jones for President in 1933. It’s claimed that it robbed him of a childhood, and left him seeking approval from everyone he knew from thereon.
What’s most effective is how Pollard eschews the typical “I was born, I lived…” narrative of other documentaries to look at Davis’ legacy in the grand context of being a black performer. He relationship with the Rat Pack was fraught with tensions; he was considered the “token black guy,” a symbol of how Hollywood was integrating. Yet, at the same time, Sinatra infamously disinvited Davis to a celebration honoring JFK, cementing the fact that integration hadn’t traveled as far as it was believed.
There’s also discussion of how Davis was perceived by the public. Many African-Americans, especially growing up in the rise of Vietnam and Civil Rights, saw Davis as a sell-out, hugging Richard Nixon and trying to please his “white masters.” In one of many fantastic excerpts from a Davis performance he baldly states that being turned away “by my own people” hurt him more than anything. Davis, unlike other black performers like Harry Belefonte, never seemed to please everyone, always inciting controversy, whether for marrying a white woman or becoming famous for his rendition of the Willy Wonka standard “Candyman.”
Talking heads are included but what keeps I’ve Gotta Be Me entertaining is the actual concert footage and interviews from Davis himself. He’s funny, charming, and candid about everything from his battles with drugs and alcohol to his confusion at his advocacy. Davis goes through a litany of emotions, desperate to have the same acclaim as his Rat Pack costars and failing. And that’s ultimately what I’ve Gotta Be Me leaves you with: wondering why he isn’t better remembered alongside Sinatra and Dean Martin. Much of it has to do with his race, even in 2017.
There is room for expansion and it is frustrating that I’ve Gotta Be Me doesn’t dive deeper into Davis’ personal life – his relationship with wife May Britt is mentioned. It’s often hard to feel for “the man” when “the performer” is all we see but that’s Pollard’s point; the performer himself had so many barriers to overcome that the man is lost in the shuffle.
Sam Pollard’s Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me is a must if you’re interested in learning about one of the more controversial and fascinating members of the Rat Pack. Pollard’s mix of history, activism and storytelling keep you riveted and angry at the career that might have been.