Sammy Davis Jr. at age 7 with Ethel Waters in Rufus Jones for President (1933)
The Will Mastin Trio
The Rat Pack
Sammy Davis Jr. with love interest Lola Falana
Sammy Davis Jr., 32, with his bride, Loray White, 23 in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 11, 1958
Sammy Davis Jr., 34, and Swedish movie actress May Britt, 24, pose in a London Hotel, on June 7, 1960
Sammy Davis Jr. and May Britt wedding November 13, 1960
Sammy Davis Jr. with Altovise Gore, married in 1970
Sammy Davis Jr., center, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., left and Ralph Abernathy, right, at a civil rights rally in Los Angeles, May 26, 1963
Sinatra and Sammy
SAMMY DAVIS JR.: I’VE GOTTA BE ME A-
USA (100 mi) 2017 d: Sam D. Pollard
Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong
Whether I find a place in this world or never belong
I gotta be me, I’ve gotta be me
What else can I be but what I am
Whether I find a place in this world or never belong
I gotta be me, I’ve gotta be me
What else can I be but what I am
—I’ve Gotta’ Be Me, music and lyrics by Walter Marks, from the Broadway musical Golden Rainbow, 1967, Sammy Davis Jr. - I Gotta Be Me - YouTube (3:11)
One of the more heartfelt films of the year, also chock full of outstanding footage, extremely well-edited and well-directed, showing surprising depth and insight into an American icon born in Harlem, who depite all his success and acclaim was never comfortable in his own skin, who always struggled with what it meant to be a black man in America, directed for the PBS American Masters series by Sam D. Pollard, an Academy Award nominated editor and producer working for Spike Lee, but also a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker who previously directed American Masters features on Marvin Gaye and playwright August Wilson. More than a biograph of the legendary singer, dancer, actor, and comedian, starring in seven Broadway shows, 23 films, dozens of TV performances and record albums, nicknamed Mr. Show Business, though he stood at a mere 5’6” and weighed only 120 pounds, yet he spent 60-years in show business, where this film shines the spotlight on his personal life and career as he navigated his way through the Depression, WWII, Sinatra and the Vegas Rat Pack days, the changing times of the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, up until his death in 1990. Perhaps the most controversial moment was a cringe-worthy photo captured when Davis hugged Republican President Richard Nixon at the Republican Convention in 1972, which happened on live TV, campaigning for him during the election, with Nixon inviting him to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House, which led to a fall-out from the black community who saw the move as a sell-out, as if he went overboard seeking white approval. Perhaps lost on Americans, and not mentioned in the film, is baseball icon Jackie Robinson supported Nixon as well when he ran against John Kennedy a decade earlier in 1960, as Kennedy prominently sat arch-segregationist Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus on stage with him at the Convention, with Robinson walking out in disgust, becoming a lifelong Republican because the Democratic Party’s segregationist Dixiecrat wing ran his family out of Georgia. Robinson, perhaps unsurprisingly, was also called an “Uncle Tom.” Having been an active supporter of Martin Luther King, attending the infamous march on Washington, it was a surprising turning point in Davis’s career and something that affected him deeply, showing how out of touch he was with black activist movements, with many black audiences shunning him afterwards. Davis was forced to apologize afterwards, giving a highly personalized speech (shown in the film), where the singing of the entitled song helped regain his reputation. But for Davis, this was incomprehensible, as his life was synonymous with black entertainers in show business, coming from parents who were themselves vaudeville dancers, having gotten his start in the movies at the age of 7, already an established tap star, singing and dancing with Ethel Waters in RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT (1933). Even earlier, his extraordinary talent was evident at the age of three when he made his first appearance onstage as a pint-sized performer in a top hat who sang and tap danced, learning from the likes of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a tap master who began in minstrel shows but developed sophisticated routines in Hollywood, becoming one of the first black performers to perform without blackface, famous for dancing up and down a staircase with complex tap rhythms on each step, where this early artform, associated with Davis throughout his career, mirrors jazz when it comes to freedom of expression and spontaneous improvisation in rhythm.
Davis learned to dance from his father and designated uncle, Will Mastin, joining the act as a child to become the Will Mastin Trio, a name that continued even as Davis was jettisoned into the lead role, where one of the more thrilling scenes pits Davis against the other two dance stand-outs in a tap-off. Touring the country as a child star, Davis never spent a single day in school, something he regretted later in life, as he never learned proper writing skills. Despite his ambitious talent, reaching the pinnacle of success in his career, he never thought it was enough, plagued by insecurity and self-doubts, with questions about his identity, never feeling comfortable being alone, something he avoided throughout his life, constantly needing reassurance from others that he was a success, suggesting he paid a heavy price for breaking down the racist walls of the industry. With contributions from Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Lewis, Quincy Jones, Norman Lear, and Kim Novak, among others that worked with him, though Paula Wayne, who shared the lead with Davis in the Broadway production of Golden Boy in the mid 60’s, literally steals the show as one of his most ardent supporters, as they all share anecdotes and personal experiences, where it was impossible not to be impressed by his amazing talent, much of which is pulled out of the vault for viewers to enjoy. Among the worst times of his life was when he joined one of the first integrated army units during WW II, where he was subjected to constant racial abuse from white soldiers, many of them from the South, including beatings and being painted white, where he got into numerous fights, knocking one man down and breaking his nose, but the man’s response afterwards, “Well, you won the fight, but you’re still a nigger,” something they never let him forget. Davis nearly died from an automobile accident in the early 50’s driving back to LA from Vegas on Route 66, where he lost an eye, requiring extensive rehab afterwards to regain his balance and equilibrium, especially important for a dancer with his skills. Jerry Lewis hired a plane and flew to his bedside, remaining their throughout his recovery, and Sinatra paid all the medical bills, with Davis wearing a patch for the first few months, eventually fitted for a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life. His return to the stage two months afterwards was one of the most anticipated events of the year, but he was spectacular, as dazzling as ever. When he got booked into Las Vegas nightclubs during the early 50’s, he had to ride in the designated “colored car” on trains, and was not able to go in the front door of certain clubs, as there were no dressing rooms for black performers, so they had to wait outside between acts. He wasn’t allowed to stay inside the casinos or hotels where he worked, or gamble, or be served a drink or meal, and had to find housing in black sections outside of town. Even more galling, when someone complained they saw him using the pool, the water was completely drained before white patrons would use the pool again, which made his acceptance into Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack all the more significant, seemingly integrated, appearing on stage and making movies together, usually at the Copa Room at the Sands, selling out nearly all their appearances, though he was the butt of many of the jokes by Sinatra and Dean Martin, with Martin lifting him in his arms, proclaiming “I’d like to thank the N.A.A.C.P. for this wonderful trophy,” where not only his diminutive size but his race was pilloried, subjecting him to a kind of personal humiliation, giving the appearance of acceptance, but many had their doubts. His career soared during that period, however, with Sinatra opening plenty of doors for him, helping to turn his talent into superstardom.
After the car accident, Davis spoke to legendary vaudeville performer Eddie Cantor in the hospital about converting to Judaism, explaining the similarities between blacks and Jews, where he was particularly struck by the endurance of the Jewish people, as they had been persecuted and oppressed for three thousand years, making the choice to convert in 1954, though after a period of study, he quietly underwent a formal conversion under the tutelage of Rabbi Harry Sherer in Las Vegas in 1961, arguably the most famous convert to Judaism of his era and a generous donor to Jewish causes, yet his affiliation caused him great personal anguish, as he was never fully accepted by Jews, while also ostracized by many blacks. Davis is remembered for being among the first black comedians to do impressions of white stars, something he was warned against by family and friends, as that was considered taboo at the time, yet his hilarious impersonations of Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, and James Cagney won him accolades, with Bogart pulling him into his dressing room to offer personal tips, learning the source of many of his infamous mannerisms and gestures. One of the real eye-openers of the film was his complex relationships with white women, including a love affair with Kim Novak, the beautiful star of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). But the year before, she was under contract with Columbia Pictures, where the dictatorial Harry Cohn, president of the studio, ordered Davis to stop seeing Novak, as the racial dynamic would affect his business, actually having him kidnapped for a few hours, threatening him with the loss of his other eye if he didn’t marry a black woman within two days. Like Buster Keaton in SEVEN CHANCES (1925), Davis desperately married black dancer Loray White in 1958, offering her $10,000 for a fake marriage, but Davis became so inebriated at the wedding that he had to be carried off to bed and the marriage was never consummated. Two years later, however, he married white Swedish actress May Britt, who converted to Judaism before the marriage, where there were bomb threats where he performed and picketing by the American Nazi party, with both receiving plenty of hate mail years later when he starred in the Broadway production of Golden Boy, (receiving a Tony nomination for Best Actor), where in 1964 the onstage kiss between Davis and co-star Paula Wayne, at the height of the Civil Rights era, was the first between a white woman and a black man on the Broadway stage. At the time of his appearance, interracial marriages were forbidden by law in 31 states, eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1967. The couple divorced in 1968 when Davis admitted having an affair with fellow cast member Lola Falana, subsequently marrying Altovise Gore, one of the dancers in Golden Boy, in 1970, remaining together until his death from throat cancer in 1990. Davis was particularly offended when he was not invited to JFK’s 1961 Presidential nomination, shunned by the President though all the other Rat Pack members attended, with Sinatra in particular heavily involved with Kennedy’s election campaign, but he never spoke up for him. While his support of Nixon might have had something to do with it, it was his interracial marriage that was used as a reason why many Southerners would be offended. Davis became active in the Civil Rights movement during the run of Golden Boy, which was seen by Martin Luther King, who particularly liked the song “No More,” No More - YouTube (6:32), with its poignant lyrics, “I ain’t bowin’ down, no more.” Though he had an aversion to going to the South, believing his life would be in danger, he was talked into attending the Selma march in Alabama when Harry Belafonte bought out the house, allowing him to participate during the production. In a television tribute celebrating his 60 years in show business, with Sammy performing a tap number, Michael Jackson performed, showing a visibly moved Sammy Davis Jr. when he notes, “Thanks to you, there’s a door we all walk through.” Despite paying the ultimate price, one of the saddest and most profound aspects of the film is understanding that the racial history in America that Davis struggled so hard to overcome never goes away, that these hard-earned lessons are somehow never really learned.