New film reminds us just how special Sammy Davis Jr. was

'Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me' gives us an insight look into the consciousness of one of black Hollywood's greatest entertainers

Legendary entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. Photo courtesy of AFI Fest

HOLLYWOOD CA-Sammy Davis Jr. was one of a kind. To be sure, there will not be another quite like him. For over six decades, Davis did thing on his own terms in the entertainment industry. The PBS American Masters produced film Sammy Davis Jr:. I’ve Gotta Be Me, which was recently showcased at the AFI Film Festival (AFI Fest), gives viewers an intimate look at the rarity of the triple threat entertainer that Davis was.

But more than the fact that he could act, dance and sing, Davis was a showman’s showman, according to the film’s depiction of him. His impeccable tap dancing skills was right up there with the famed Nicholas Brothers (Fayard and Harold). Impersonations of stars like Jerry Lewis and Humphrey Bogart became another gateway that helped cultivate his success on stage on the screen.

Davis was a fascinating presence. It was magical watching him perform Mr. Bojangles, his signature calling card about a broken tap dancer whose life was immersed in the art of providing entertainment, whether he was in a jail cell or working the minstrel show circuit. If there were ever a song intertwined with the life of a performer, Mr. Bojangles was that kick for Davis.

Sammy Davis Jr. with President Richard Nixon. Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration/Wiki Media Commons

Davis didn’t just perform Mr. Bojangles; he was Mr. Bojangles, a down and out performer with a flicker of reflection on the joy he rendered to so many folks just by clicking his shoes together. That scene in Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, is perhaps the most moving, as an emotional yet emphatic Davis recalls how closely related he felt he was to the fictional character he created.

The diminutive Davis, who stood reportedly at 5-foot-5, was bigger than Mr. Boajangles as the one hour and 40 minutes film puts on display. Davis was a lot of things to a lot of people. Some good, some bad. The uncovering of Davis as an activist, humanitarian, comedian, father and husband, gets lumped in this long overdue homage to one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever seen.

Being seen as just a black entertainer was not Davis’ style. He wanted to cross barriers. Davis didn’t want to be limited to just being a Negro performer doing the black entertainment circuit. He envisioned a bigger picture for himself. He wanted the doors to be opened so he could do what he wanted to do, according to the direction of film director Samuel Pollard. That included being romantically linked with whomever he chose-black or white.

Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me addresses this Pandora’s box about Davis, who had a penchant of being tied to white women. Pollard’s well-done film does not shy away from this fact as it recovers the love Davis and actress Kim Novak had for one another. It also doesn’t skirt around the point that then Columbia head Harry Cohn allegedly put out a hit contract on Davis to discourage the relationship he had with Novak. Davis wound up marrying black singer Loray White in a frontal exercise to appease Cohn and white Hollywood.

Pollard’s undertaking of Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me doesn’t sugarcoat the racism that Davis endured throughout his life and professional career. The documentary spills out the vile bigotry Davis encounters as a U.S. Army serviceman where he was beaten on a regular basis, allegedly kidnapped and painted white, and forced to drink urine from a beer bottle. And again, there is the matter off Davis dating white women.

The backlash to his romance to Novak was fierce. But when he dated and later married Swede actress May Britt, the fury was just as ugly and despicable. An ally to Rat Pack comrade Frank Sinatra, Davis was allegedly shunned from performing at President John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration because of the fact he was married to Britt.

Some of these nuggets of information have been out there about Davis, but to see it in one collaborative effort, is enlightening. Strangely, though, the film leaves out Altovise Davis, the black woman whom Davis was married to for the last 20 years of his life. The power of Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta To Be Me is in the excellent storytelling that traces Davis’ roots as a hoofer and entertainer as a child prodigy to the lifetime celebration he received shortly before his passing.

In between, there is his life as an engaged an well-informed participant in the Civil Rights Movement, his Rat Pack moments, the tug-o-war, take it or leave it affection Davis received from the black community, and of course, his mesmerizing entertaining skills.

Davis was always seen as this cool and hip cat who could adopt to any environment he was put in. He was certainly a trailblazer for black Americans in the entertainment field. The Candy Man, who starred in the original Ocean’s 11 movie in 1960, was a cultural barrier breakthrough waiting to happen. His leading role in the Broadway stage play Golden Boy signifies the racial transformation Davis brought to the table. That was Mr. Bojangles’ cue.

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1182 Articles
Dennis covers the NFL (Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a proud alum of Howard University.