Race has always been a hot-button issue, but in these times where it’s at the forefront of our country it’s best to go back to the past. Actor and musician Sammy Davis, Jr. was one of the first black entertainers to be embraced by white Americans, and that created a powder keg of opinions that have followed the entertainer’s legacy ever since. The conflicting responses to Davis, and how he’s perceived today are all laid bare in Sam Pollard’s documentary Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me. While promoting the film at AFI Fest, Pollard talked to The Young Folks about creating the film, how Davis might have responded to today’s political regime, and more.
You’ve done several documentaries, but what was the impetus for you to tell Davis’ story specifically?
Well, you know, honestly I was hired. [laughs]
There’s nothing wrong with that! Sometimes the best stories come from assignments.
I [was] hired by American Masters and the executive producer, Michael Kantor, to direct a documentary on Sammy. For me it was very exciting because as a young man growing up in New York City in the ’60s I saw Sammy Davis, Jr. all the time on shows like Ed Sullivan Show, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin. I’d seen the Rat Pack films, Ocean’s 11 in particular, so I was very familiar with Sammy Davis, Jr. At 15 years old, or 16, I read his biography “Yes, I Can” so I knew about him but I didn’t know how much I didn’t know till I got into research of film and you always uncover interesting things about a human being when you research a documentary.
What were some of the preconceived notions? Things that you definitely didn’t know before you made this or things you kind of wanted to dispel. It seems like there’s so much innuendo that you always wonder if those are true. Were there things you definitely wanted to set out to achieve when telling his story when you were researching?
I wanted to understand what were his real politics. Why was he one who at some points supported Dr. King, but then on the other hand he would go and hug Richard Nixon? Why was this a man who wanted to be accepted by white America and had to deal with the brick bats of the Black community? Why was this a man who was in love with May Britt, had kids with May Britt, but couldn’t sustain the marriage? Those were the things I wanted to know more about, and I hope we helped accomplish some of those things with the film.
I love how you throw out the typical chronological narrative. “I was born, I lived, I died.” Why did you decide to focus on specific chapters of his life, as opposed to doing the typical birth to death documentary?
The gentleman who wrote the proposal and the initial script that got us a large amount of funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities, Larry Maslon, when I read through his script as I started the project I saw that he had done these chapter headings “Sam: Singer, Impressionist, Actor, Leading Man.” So I said, “Well that’s not a bad approach.” As we started to put the…first assembly [together], it was almost two and a half hours because it was so much of Sammy’s life that we had to try and fit in. Then I went back to Larry’s script and said, “I think this is going to be a better way to do it.” I came up with the idea of doing his signature album covers and repurposing them in graphics so they would speak to different chapters in his life.
You know, the challenge for me, too, something I have to deal with later today, with one of his adopted sons, Manny, when you do it the way we do it in terms of the chapters of his life in terms of “singer,” “impressionist,” “actor,” you lose some aspects of his life. Some people would say, for example, how come you don’t deal with Altovise Davis? They were married for twenty years? And I understood that. But it was really at a point in Sammy’s life where all the major things had happened, so that’s why I didn’t deal with her. I thought it was a good way to go and it took it out of the birth to death chronology: he lived, he had this happen, and then he died. I felt doing it this way gave it a little more pizzazz.
I always ask directors if there was a “gotcha” moment; where you looked at a piece of footage or an interview, and said this cements everything that we’ve been doing.
There are two moments to me that I call “gotcha” moments. One was in the section where we talk about him as a dancer, and there’s this great scene where he’s dancing with the two drummers and they zoom into Sammy and the two drummers go out of the frame and Sammy is dancing by himself. I always knew that Sammy was a pretty damn good tap dancer, but when I saw that sequence I thought he was absolutely phenomenal. I had never seen that footage before, how phenomenal he was, so that really was like “Wow, this guy really is multi-faceted and brilliant at everything he could do.” This dancing showed that.
The other moment to me was the last moment in the film where he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer, they give him the 50th celebration and Gregory Hines asks Sammy to dance with him. Seeing Sammy dance against Gregory Hines, who is a pretty formidable dancer himself, and how good he was, he only lived for three more months after that show, shows that this guy had what I call moxie, he had determination, he had fortitude, and even in his last days, he had what it takes.
He blew Gregory Hines away and you can see the look on his face like “holy crap I can’t believe this is happening!”
That’s exactly right. He was phenomenal. Those are the two most powerful moments in the film. They’re just, “Wow, Sammy Davis Jr.” I knew he was great, but these really cemented it for me.
Watching this doc in relation to last year and the O.J. doc, I love how you broach throughout the movie that Sammy couldn’t really please everybody. He wanted to, but there’s always this element of outsider on both white and black audiences; he couldn’t ever really bridge the gap.
Had he lived longer, and times being what they are today, how do you think people would receive him in 2017?
I’m trying to think, is there an artist as multitalented as Sammy Davis Jr. in today’s world, who could do what he did and still be loved by everyone? You know, America is a funny place. He may have had less, well I don’t want to even say may, he would have had less obstacles if he lived in a different world now. Would he have been as embraced as he was back in the ’60s, or since, in some cases, embraced and some people couldn’t stand him, I think he was such a complicated man he might still have had some complicated reactions from people on both sides of the community.
I doubt he would be hugging Donald Trump.
I would hope not, but you know…Sammy always said that hug [with Nixon] was spontaneous.
He was a hugger. He was affectionate with everybody.
Yeah, he was a hugger. So, probably in today’s climate he would not be hugging Donald Trump. The world is so different now, he would have known right up front that you cannot hug Donald Trump.
I loved the editing of this movie, especially, the “Me and My Shadow” scene, where he’s talking and…it’s hard not to feel like there is a double meaning to that. Obviously, the editor is a totally separate subject, but when you are looking through research and putting stuff together, how much do you attempt to convey these double meanings or at least make the audience think about his place in the Rat Pack?
It’s really when you’re editing films like these, documentaries in particular, it’s all about the juxtaposition. Think of it this way, we come out of the sequence when Kennedy is elected president and Sinatra is heading the gala and his best friend, who is a part of the Rat Pack, Sammy Davis, Jr., is disinvited. Then Paula Wayne says Sammy was very upset and Frank Sinatra should have stood up for him, and then says the only person who should have stood up for him was Frank Sinatra and you wonder why. Then we cut to the scene where you have Frank, Dean, and Sammy and you have the name “Junior Partner” and then transition you into this whole relationship with him and Frank. [sings] Me and my shadow…what does the first person say? Sammy either wanted to be the Jewish Frank Sinatra…I forget who said this.
Basically what you’re seeing is we’ve created this double meaning with “Me and My Shadow,” the fact that he had been rejected, and even though Frank didn’t stand up for him, he loved Frank Sinatra, so there’s this duality in their relationship that carried over onto the stage in those bits they did where they made fun of Sammy cause he was the black man on the stage. It was all about the editorial juxtaposition and the editing of the film which I think is marvelous by Steve Wexler, who has edited my previous two documentaries for American Masters, one on August Wilson and one on John Wayne, he did a marvelous job. That’s why it works, cause editorially that’s what we thought about.
Were there things you wanted to include but for time and clarity’s sake you just couldn’t get them in there?
In all honesty, in all these films, there’s always stuff you want to include. We had longer sequences where we dealt with the Golden Boy segment. We had a longer sequence when we dealt with Sammy and the ’80s where he fell out of step; the ’70s and ’80s where he wasn’t so hip, all of those sequences were longer. We tried to put in a little bit about Altovise but we never had enough substantial material to hold onto. We could have had a two hour cut, but I don’t think it would have been as engaging or as crisp as the one we have now. I feel this one is crisp, rhythmically and pacing wise it never flags, you stay with the film from beginning to end.
You mentioned you have a couple docs out: Maynard and Mr. Soul. What can you tell us about those?
Maynard is going to premiere next Thursday in New York at a festival called DocNYC. It was two and a half years in the making and looks at the life and career of Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, his first three terms as mayor and how he was at the head of affirmative action in Atlanta and the United States. Mr. Soul hasn’t been finished yet, so I won’t speak about that one since it’s still in the cooker.
Do you have a dream list of figures you’d love to talk about? So many of your documentaries are about prominent African American figures.
I have a couple I want to do. There’s one I’m trying to get off the ground about a phenomenal jazz musician who was a part of the creation of the bebop age named Max Roach that I’ve been trying to get off the ground for a few years, so hopefully that will happen. There are a couple others that I can’t talk about now that I’ve been trying to get off the ground. I’m always trying to keeps the pots boiling, trying to make films, articulate and present the African American experience.
How awesome was it to talk to and include Kim Novak in this documentary? That segment was so fascinating to me, cause I’d never heard that.
The thing that’s fascinating is that she said yes because she had some deep affection for Mr. Davis. Even though she says to this day that their relationship was no more than platonic, even now she says that. To be sitting with Kim Novak, who, in the ’50s was one of the screen icons, was one of those things that is phenomenal.
I’d always hard there were rumors that [her and Davis] had to separate very quickly, so I’m happy my Hollywood conspiracy theory got to be explained.
It was true. Harry Cohn didn’t want them together.
I don’t know whether Hollywood has gotten better or worse in the interim with everything that’s happening.
I don’t know if it’s gotten better. It’s amazing to me how Harvey Weinstein has started an avalanche. When I hear names now Spacey, James Toback, Dustin Hoffman, Brett Ratner…you know and I know that it goes back so far. Goes back to the beginning of Hollywood. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck, these guys were all doing it back then.