Directed by Sam Pollard
(USA, 100 min.) NYC PREMIERE
SUN. NOV. 12, 1:30PM (SVA Theatre)
TUE. NOV. 14, 12:15PM (IFC Center)

Series: Centerstage


When you think about it for a second, it’s pretty odd that a true documentary on a legendary talent like Sammy Davis Jr. has, until this point, never been made.  

Yet when you properly examine his career, as “Sammy Davis, Jr,: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” titled off of one of his most famous songs, so expertly and emotionally does, not only do you gain an extreme amount of insight on him, you also remember – or discover – that the very complicated Davis had his life in so many different cultures and identities, that perhaps finding the ‘right’ narrative to explore his life is what inhibited his story from being told.

And maybe that’s a good thing, since it allowed one of our greatest documentarians, Sam Pollard (last year’s “Two Trains Runnin’,” “Slavery by Another Name”), to be the one to direct Davis’ life story.  

One of the world’s most talented performers of the last century, Davis’ singing, dancing and acting made him a huge star of the stage and screen since his youth on the vaudeville ‘chitlin’ circuit’ with The Will Mastin Trio (Davis’ ‘uncle’ and dad) beginning in the 1920’s, squarely into worldwide fame in the 1960’s with Frank Sinatra’s legendary Rat Pack troupe. But his breaking of severe racial barriers in performing for vast white audiences came at a cost. As the Civil Rights Movement picked up steam concurrent with his ‘acceptance’ by the White community, the Black community began to regard Davis as an Uncle Tom.  

Of course, Davis’ romancing of, and marriages to, White women, did not help his relationship with the Black community, nor did his becoming the most public black figure to embrace Judaism as a religion, or his insistence on holding onto increasingly outdated show business traditions.  

But then Sammy Davis Jr. never did things the easy way, nor was he allowed to.  


Sammy Davis, Jr. takes aim in a backstage photo with his dancers in a scene from the documentary SAMMY DAVIS, JR.: I’VE GOTTA BE ME. Photo Credit: The Estate of Altovise Davis


What “…I’ve Gotta Be Me” does so fluidly is explore the vastness of Davis’ complicated life without apology.  It doesn’t allow you to feel too much sympathy toward Davis, nor does it allow you triumphantly judge him, even at his most screwed up moments like hugging of the soon-to-be condemned Richard Nixon (which is just one of many).  This documentary full-on embraces the contradictory nature of Davis relationship, primarily with his own self-image, unfurling a man beaten down by life and the gross inequities of racism yet always, always trying to achieve the American Dream.  

Regardless of how you feel about Sammy Davis Jr., his talent cannot be denied. It flat cannot. And seeing it on the big screen makes it even less deniable since, as you would expect, the footage of him dancing, singing, and yes doing expert impressions of mid-century movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney is truly inspiring.  And for a performer as rich as Davis, this is everything. This is where his genuineness truly shows, where he can relax, slow down, speed up, and show the world who he really is – someone able to make people laugh, cry, and holler.  

We ask so much of our performers.  This is one of the only things that the unites the world across racial, political, and social lines.  We ask them to sacrifice so much, then expect them to be just like us at the same time. That’s not reality, and perhaps why Sammy chose not to live in the reality the world set for him. And that would make sense, because despite everything, his mantra holds: “I’ve gotta be me.”

Featuring new interviews with such luminaries as Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis, and Kim Novak, with never-before-seen photographs from Davis’ vast personal collection and aforementioned excerpts from his electric performances in television, film and concert, “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” makes its NYC premiere on November 12th at DOC NYC and repeats on Tuesday November 14th.  


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