Black entertainers in this country shoulder a burden that we don’t often consider – that of representation. Even now in the 21st century, the Black artist must carry the entire race with them as they navigate career, politics and the complexities of their personal lives. Watching from the sidelines, we expect –perhaps unconsciously, for these larger than life figures to make choices that are conscious of their Blackness. We are desperate for them to recognize that their visibility affects the community as a whole.
In the 20th century, at a time when Black visibility in the entertainment space was nearly scarce– consummate entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. an enigmatic and unparalleled talent was often labeled an Uncle Tom and sell-out. He was seen as out of touch with the realities of everyday Black people because of the company that he kept publically. In his well-honed and rapidly paced documentary Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, filmmaker Sam Pollard dives deep into the six-decade long career of Davis — one that began on the streets of Harlem and ended just before his death in 1990, with a television tribute starring everyone from Michael Jackson to Gregory Hines.
A man with no formal education whatsoever, Davis had traveled across the country ten times by the time he was 10-years old. Born into a family of entertainers, Davis won his first amateur performance at three years old, and he would continue to defy expectations and shatter glass ceilings throughout his career. Using Davis’ own words with old archival footage of interviews and his performances, with input from historians and his friends, lover, and admirers, including, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis and Kim Novak, Pollard’s film is electric.
Despite his magnetic career, Davis’ desperate desire to be seen as merely an entertainer and not necessarily a Black entertainer put him at odds with the community. It was something that deeply pained him, especially since he was a patriot, avid member of the Civil Rights Movement and a dear friend to Martin Luther King, Jr. Though they are often overlooked when his career is considered as a whole, Pollard is careful to highlight Davis’ philanthropic and civil contributions. Dear friends with Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis and Harry Belafonte, Davis raised over $5 million for the Civil Rights Movement during Freedom Summer. He was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and he was present at both Selma and the March on Washington.
Still, his love-affairs with white women and his eventual friendship with controversial President Richard Nixon ostracized him from the Black community. And yet, he was still (even inadvertently) a trailblazer for the race. In I’ve Gotta Be Me, Pollard walks his audience through Davis’ career — one that saw a plethora of firsts. He was the first Black entertainer to do impressions of white celebrities, the first Black celebrity to sleep in the White House and the first Black actor to with an interracial kiss on Broadway.
To label him as a race traitor or a man trapped in the “sunken place” would be unfair. For example, many were horrified that Davis went to Vietnam in the ‘70s to entertain and speak with the troops. But, Davis was an Army vet who had known the trials and tribulations of the life of a soldier. A member of the infamous Rat Pack in 1960’s Las Vegas — a group that included both Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin gave Davis rare access to Hollywood’s A-list. However, as the country moved forward the groups’ “illusion” of integration rang increasingly false. This was especially glaring when Davis was uninvited to President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration festivities because he had a white wife –and Sinatra failed to speak up for him. Moments like this made Davis’ desire to be seen as more than just Black all the more puzzling.
I’ve Gotta Be Me would almost be a tragic tale if it weren’t for Davis’ flamboyant penchant of life. He acted entirely on his emotions, dreams and desires without regard for anything else. Never saving a dime, the Porgy and Bess actor ran through money like water, buying everything from Rolls-Royces to extravagant diamond encrusted pinky rings, drinking heavily and doing coke. He always knew money was coming so he never let it control him. However, it was his affinity for four packs of cigarettes a day that would kill him – Davis died of throat cancer in 1990 at the age of 65.
More than anything, Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me asks one question. With everything that we have struggled with as a community and continue to fight against including –the theft of our culture, rampant racism, violence and so forth, as a public figure, do you have a right to be who you are without considering the Black community? In these tumultuous and uncertain times, I’m not sure that I can answer that, nor does Pollard try to, but I do know Davis opened many doors that entertainers today are still desperately hoping to walk through.
Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me is an American Masters Pictures production in co-production with ZDF in collaboration with ARTE.
The film premiered at Toronto International Film Festival this month.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami