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Sammy Davis Jr. Embodied the Difficulties Black Entertainers Face Today

A new documentary explores the late and legendary entertainer's complicated legacy.

by Candice Frederick
Sep 11 2017, 3:36pm

Sammy Davis Jr. backstage photo. Photo Credit: The Estate of Altovise Davis

Sammy Davis Jr. was as tough to define as his multi-hyphenate career. Most folks refer to him simply as an entertainer—not a singer, comedian, dancer, or actor, but a man who defied even his own labels including black, Puerto Rican, and Jewish. As shown in director Sam Pollard's Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival this month, Davis fought long and hard to be inscrutable.

He also fought to be taken seriously as a performer coming up during Jim Crow amid a sea of white celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin—which often meant distancing himself from his blackness and being a quiet ally in the civil rights movement. It also meant that he'd occasionally find himself inside the "sunken place."

It's a position we've seen repeated in recent years in Hollywood. Kevin Hart doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as a black comedian; Michael Jackson was "bigger" than his race; Jimi Hendrix said his rock 'n' roll jams, despite being heavily influenced by African American blues, never quite fit inside the genre of black music. Prince was said to have "transcended" race, and Idris Elba has said he's more than just his race—an actor, apparently race nondescript. This is more significant today when it seems like every black celebrity—man or woman—is asked about what their success means for black representation in Hollywood, forcing them to think about themselves in a broader sense. Black celebrities are political statements in and of themselves. Some, like Kerry Washington and Jesse Williams, embrace it. Others rebel against it.

Davis obviously fell into the latter category. Taking its title from one of Davis's most popular songs—which includes the lyric "the dream that I see makes me what I am"—I've Gotta Be Me is as idyllic as it is heartbreaking. The film features interviews and clips from some of his most electrifying performances (going as far back as 1933 when he was a child actor in Rufus Jones for President), along with reflections from his peers, lovers, and contemporaries, including the equally divisive Whoopi Goldberg, Kim Novak, Quincy Jones, and the late Jerry Lewis. The film is a portrait of a man who grappled with who he was, as well as what he wanted to represent.

The documentary impresses upon audiences how determined Davis was to make it in Hollywood without his race being a factor or deterrent. So what does he do? Imitate "the man," obviously. He stunned audiences with impressions of famous white men like Bing Crosby, men whom he befriended. It was a bold move at the time (and still would be considered so today), but it showed off his chops and launched him into a new phase of his career. White audiences adored him, and black audiences were fascinated by his subtle and unexpected self-awareness and political commentary that only they could truly appreciate. For all intents and purposes, he had made it. He even joined the Rat Pack with Sinatra, Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop in the early 1960s.

But there comes a time in every black entertainer's career when they become universal and appreciated by audiences across cultures. They feel like they're invincible—that they can do whatever they want, because they think they're no longer seen as the other. We see it today with celebrities like O.J. Simpson, and we saw it then with Davis, who was seen publicly supporting Republican Richard Nixon, and later even going on a USO tour in Vietnam at the request of the president.

Sammy Davis Jr. takes aim in a backstage photo with his dancers in a scene from Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me. Photo Credit via the Estate of Altovise Davis

He created a stir when he was seen around town with some of the most sought-after white starlets on his arm—including May Britt, who he wed in 1960 before interracial marriages were even legal (and right after ending a marriage to black singer/actress Loray White, forced upon him by Columbia Pictures head honcho Harry Cohn who was outraged by Davis's romantic choices). Whether or not Davis was trying to cause controversy, his personal life became tabloid fodder, dismaying his black fans and turning off his longtime friends including Sinatra, with whom his relationship was never repaired. It was then when Davis realized that despite having so many high-profile, powerful white friends in the industry, he was left alone at his most vulnerable.

I've Gotta Be Me is at once a devastating biopic that highlights Davis's most private struggles in his own words (including his later cocaine addiction), and a story of triumph about one of the most beloved yet complicated entertainers in US history—a black man who rose among Hollywood's elite the hard way, but on his own terms. In doing so, it contextualizes what it means to be a black entertainer and live in a constant state of conflict. Davis was a polarizing figure who was quick to evade type, but he was also a trailblazer whose story serves as a precedent for some of today's brightest and most contentious stars.

Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me is an American Masters Pictures production in co-production with ZDF in collaboration with ARTE.

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