Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me
(USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Sam Pollard
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
Sam Pollard, who directed Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, has an extensive list of credits as a film editor in addition to being a veteran director. He’s chopped and spliced over forty flicks in his career, including several Spike Lee joints like Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and Clockers. (His work as a producer includes Lee’s multi-award winning doc When the Levees Broke about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.) Pollard’s vast experience resonates in every sequence of his biopic on Davis, who left an extensive range of archival material and interviews for him to utilize. The doc is an insightful and entertaining portrait of the African-American member of the Rat Pack who broke barriers and shook up representations of race in film and television.
The film charts Davis’s career from his breakout role alongside Ethel Waters in the 1933 short film Rufus Jones for President to his mature years as a musical and movie star. The excerpts from the short film showcase Davis’s innate ability to hog the spotlight as he tap dances with youthful enthusiasm. The talking heads in the film—his old friends and fellow entertainers—-describe this scene-stealing performance as the kind of role in which a star is born. Pollard amasses an impressive range of interviewees including Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Lewis, and Billy Crystal to recall the life and work of the iconoclastic star.
His successful period as a child actor during a heavily segregated era gave Davis many insecurities, which deepened the alienation he felt growing up as a Black performer. I’ve Gotta Be Me shows Davis becoming a star as an adult fuelled by his energetic love for the spotlight and intense desire to please. The fateful gig with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, which doesn’t take up nearly as much of the film as one might expect, was a major breakthrough for featuring a mixed race ensemble. The film shows that Davis was always the exception in the Pack and that he still became the butt of many racist jokes in the group for being a Black Jew with one eye—something that several of the interviewees simply characterize as the comedy “of a different time.”
The film illustrates Davis’s significance in terms of advancing opportunities for Black Americans in film, music, and television, but Pollard’s doc smartly includes the heavy price that Davis paid for breaking through the racist walls of the industry. Stories about an interracial romance bringing a death threat and an impromptu marriage with a Black secretary, for example, highlight how Davis’s stardom threatened the white establishment of Hollywood studios. Similarly, a powerful interview with actress Lorna Wayne recalls a controversial interracial kiss with Davis in the 1964 stage musical Golden Boy, which brought headlines, gossip, ostracization, and other repercussions for them both. Tangents on Davis’s political affiliations, particularly a much-publicized photograph with Richard Nixon on the campaign trail, show the challenges Davis faced by playing to the white majority while alienating the Black audience in his corner.
I’ve Gotta Be Me generally takes a greatest hits approach to Davis’s life, but Pollard isn’t afraid to let the tarnish show on Davis’s otherwise polished career. The range of material Pollard collects from the archive offers an extensive breadth of Davis’s skill and talents. The star’s lust for life in the spotlight is evident in the footage that spans 66 years from Rufus Jones for President to a lifetime achievement award ceremony in which he donned his tap shoews and moved with youthful grace. I’ve Gotta Be Me is a fine tribute to Davis and all performers who risk the spotlight to create opportunities for others.
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TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more information.