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TIFF 2018: I’ve Gotta Be Me

TIFF 2018: I’ve Gotta Be Me

Richard Lippe   |   October 2018

I’ve Gotta Be Me (2017) is a PBS American Masters documentary on the life of Sammy Davis, Jr. The film, directed by Sam Pollard and written by Laurence Maston, is a celebratory account of Davis’s life and career which decidedly deserves a contemporary assessment. Born in Harlem in 1925 to show business parents, Davis began performing at the age of three and continued to do so until his death in 1990. A product of 20th Century live audience entertainment, Davis was by seven an accomplished performer as documented in a 1932 two-reeler film, Rufus Washington for President, which stars Ethel Waters. In an excerpt from the film, Davis is dazzling as he dances and sings with a complete professional control over his performance. During the 30s and beyond, Davis was part of the Will Mastin Trio which consisted of Mastin, his godfather, and Sammy Davis Sr. Initially, the trio travelled around the country as a vaudeville act on the black circuit. With the advent of WWII, Davis Jr. enlisted in the army and found himself in a racially intergraded unit that was conceived to provide entertainment for the troops. It was in this environment that Davis first encountered physically the horror of racism, having his nose broken three times by white servicemen who also degraded him verbally while his superior officers ignored what was happening.

In the post WWII period, television became the medium of the moment and, by the early 50s, the Trio, largely due to the young Davis’s skills, was given the opportunity to appear on the Colgate Comedy Hour, then hosted by Eddie Cantor. We see in an excerpt Cantor introducing the group, effusive as he speaks about Davis’s talent. After the performance, he returns to the stage and in a gesture of concern and respect, brings along a face towel; and after wiping Davis’s face, puts his arm around him. The controversial gesture, perhaps an attempt by Cantor to encourage race relations, is an illustration of Davis’s future identity as a performer who, by circumstance or intent, often found himself in incendiary situations.

I’ve Gotta Be Me presents Davis as a black man who challenged racial discrimination throughout his adult life. Whether he was labeled a ‘rebel’ or an opportunist seeking white approval, Davis refused to accept the notion that a dark skin color was a marker of inequality or inferiority. Given his position, he found himself in a double bind; much of the black community felt he was looking for validation from white society while the latter saw him as a threat to its hegemony. By the 50s, a number of other black performers had made note worthy inroads into the mainstream entertainment industry. For example, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were cautiously building careers that were acceptable to both blacks and whites. In political terms, while the two men, like Davis, took part in the Civil Rights Movement, their participation wasn’t given the media attention Davis’s involvement received.

Davis was a remarkably talented performer. In addition to being a dancer and singer, he was a witty comedian, an impressionist, a Las Vegas headliner, a film and Broadway stage actor– the former perhaps best remembered for his rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” in Otto Preminger’s Porgy and Bess (1959) a television performer having his own show and an engaging interviewee and storyteller. Another facet of his creativity was that of being an accomplished photographer. Davis came to the medium through his friendship with Jerry Lewis; early on in his career, the latter had been instrumental in advising Davis on how to fine tune his relationship with a live audience. Bud Boyar, a New York columnist and a longstanding friend, edited and provided the text for a collection of Davis’s photographs which was published in 2008 as Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr. On occasion, Davis’s own words accompany the image providing his thoughts on the subject or event. The book primarily consists of candid shots of show business people or political figures. Clearly, Davis was attuned to many of his subjects who are seen in intimate moments. For instance, there is a dramatic shot of an exhausted Judy Garland as she takes a momentary break during a backstage rehearsal.

I’ve Gotta Be Me begins with an extended collage-like sequence of Davis in various periods of his career and from there moves on to a series of loosely chronological chapters beginning with ‘Prodigy’ and concluding with ‘Jump So High.’ While the content in some of these chapters is to be expected given the heading, there are several that take on a more unexpected turn. For instance, ‘Impressionist’ begins with Davis doing very convincing imitations of black performers which is followed by impersonations of white actors such as Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, James Stewart. As we discover, the latter-mentioned impressions became a point of contention as Davis was accused of stepping over a racial line. Davis says his father was among those who objected to them. Most likely, Davis, having a fascination with movie stars, thought of these impressions as a means to pay homage to these cinematic icons.

Throughout the film, Davis comes across as a genuine person in behavior and performance, relying on his instincts and need to be upfront about his thoughts and feelings. One of the most striking pieces of footage in the film concerns a 1972 concert he performed in support of Richard Nixon much to the anger of the black community. Facing a huge predominantly black audience, he confronts them by saying he refuses to apologize for his endorsement of Nixon. Davis goes on to tell the crowd he’s on stage as a performer and, if they agree, he will sing. They agree and he begins to sing ‘I’ve Gotta Be Me’, a signature song; at its conclusion, he is given a standing ovation. Davis wins their acceptance through the song’s lyrics but also by his sincerity. At a later time, Davis admitted his misjudgment in backing Nixon.

To return to the film’s framing device, a chapter entitled ‘Junior Partner’ focuses on his Las Vegas shows with Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. It’s an episode of his career that continues to be controversial into the present day. In addition to this documentary the recent DVD, Alex Gibney’s Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All, also raises questions regarding how Davis was treated by Sinatra and the other members of the group. Sinatra, for instance, didn’t protest when, newly elected as president, John Kennedy refused to allow Davis to attend his inaugural celebration. In I’ve Gotta Be Me, Harry Belafonte claims that Davis, as part of the group, became unwittingly the butt of racist jokes. While this perception has its supporters, I feel Davis was aware of what he was doing. As a comedian, he understood that humour was a powerful means to call attention to racism while defusing its inherent tensions. In the 50s and early 60s, the seriousness of racial discrimination had been addressed forcefully by the Civil Rights Movement; with the Rat Pack, its intention was to deflate racism and its bigotry through mockery. Significantly, Davis, appearing as himself in a 1972 episode of All in the Family, playfully took on Archie Bunker’s reactionary values. He concluded his visit with Archie by planting a kiss on his cheek, providing network television with one of its most hilarious and iconic moments. I’ve Gotta Be Me features a clip in which Norman Lear, the series producer-writer, remarks that previous to Davis’s appearance, the show didn’t use guest stars. He says Davis contacted him about an idea he had for the show and “…was as much a writer as a performer….” The kiss, Davis’s idea, was not only inspired theatrics, but an example of his sweet natured sense of comedy.

‘Rebel’ is introduced with Boyar mentioning that all kinds of women were always a big part of Davis’s life and goes on to say that he was particularly attracted to white women. The comments lead in to what became one of the more sensationalistic items involving his personal life. In 1957, columnist Dorothy Killgallen, in a not too subtle blind item, broke the story that Davis and Kim Novak were having a love affair which, in turn, became fodder for the tabloid press. Novak, who was under contract to Columbia Pictures at the time, was the studio’s most valued property both as a financial investment and as its leading box office draw. When Harry Cohn, head of the studio, heard the news he was outraged and allegedly threatened Davis with physical violence; more precisely, the performer, having lost one eye in a 1954 automobile accident, would lose the other eye and have both of his legs broken. The extreme violence of the threat indicates just how much was at stake for the studio at the mere suggestion of an interracial relationship.

Through the years, the relationship has remained an open issue. Boyar says he believes Novak was probably the first woman Davis really loved and that the relationship was ‘very serious,’ but does not elaborate on the latter claim. Additionally, several other men close to Davis, similarly attest to its impact on Davis. Having been asked to participate in the film, Novak shares her thoughts on Davis and her feelings for him. Novak’s comments verify Boyar’s description of the relationship being ‘very serious’ but, from her account, it was one of a great affection for him, but not a love affair. She begins by telling an amusing story: After meeting Davis socially, he telephoned and asks if he could photograph her. Davis arrived with his camera and began taking pictures but she soon noticed that he had forgotten to remove the lens cover on the camera. She points out the incident made her realize that he had a crush on her. Continuing, Novak says ” Sammy had such a warm, sensitive, genuine, sort of a boyish quality that had such an innocence about him, that I remember… I felt a closeness to him. We just had the best time. I loved Sammy and then of course, it all broke out in the press. And then it became a whole thing at the studio. I had no idea of the prejudice was what it was. I was always color blind….Anyway, it was so ridiculous, the whole thing. At that time the world wasn’t ready for that change….I mean Harry Cohn was like a dictator at the studio and he was telling me I must never see him again. I didn’t want it to end. By seeing him it put my career in jeopardy and it put me in jeopardy too.”

Although Novak’s onscreen time is brief, it carries a considerable impact. Up to this point, commentators on Davis range from insider friends/personal staff, show business acquaintances such as Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, and several black non-industry observers. In contrast, Novak speaks of Davis with an intimacy that provides a different picture of him. Her comments are sincere and offer an image of Davis as being a vulnerable and loving person. In addition, Novak, in her forthright acknowledgment of the emotional loss she experienced due to the pressures she encountered both within the film industry and society at large, eloquently addresses the inhumanity of racial prejudice and its senseless destructiveness.

In early 1958, to distance himself from the Novak scandal, Davis agreed to a strictly arranged marriage to Loray White, a young black woman who was paid $10,000.00 for her services. The marriage ended with a divorce in 1960. In the same year, Davis entered an interracial marriage with May Britt, a young Swedish actor under contract to 20th Century-Fox. The reaction from the press and the public was to treat the marriage as an outrage. Interestingly, several years earlier, Belafonte married a white woman and it didn’t turn into a media frenzy. Possibly, the fact that his wife wasn’t a noted celebrity may have affected the mainstream reaction but, with Davis and his controversial media image, the response was not unexpected.

On a professional level, Davis returned to the stage in 1964 starring in a musical version of Clifford Odets’ play Golden Boy. The production, directed by Arthur Penn, ran for two years and was highly confrontational as his leading lady, Paula Wayne, was a white actor-singer. Their relationship involved a passionate kiss which made history as it was the first depiction of interracial sexuality seen on the Broadway stage. Previous to Golden Boy, black and white actors weren’t allowed to even touch during a performance.

The film’s two concluding chapters, ‘Hipster’ and ‘Jump So High’ address the latter years of Davis’s life. The former concerns the decline of his musical career which began in the late 60s, although he remained a draw in Las Vegas. Davis gradually ventured back into television after having had The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show on NBC in 1966. Aside from the previously noted All in the Family appearance, he appeared on variety shows and became a familiar presence as a guest in numerous television series such as The Rifleman and I Dream of Jeannie. In keeping with reaching a wider and more contemporary audience, he turned up on Laugh-In, known for its cutting edge comedy. To complete the ‘hip’ image, Davis cultivated a fashionable wardrobe, taking on the ‘mod’ look. Like the many other aging performers who did the same, he looked somewhat incongruous in his new image. Judging from the footage, it is difficult to tell whether he was taking himself seriously or/and trying to be humorous and playful about contemporary clothing trends.

‘Jump So High’, the heading taken from the title of one of Davis’s popular renditions, deals with his physical decline which involved addictions to alcohol and cocaine. In the fall of 1989, he was diagnosed as having a tumor in his throat. Refusing an operation, he chose to have chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Davis died on May 16, 1990. Shortly before his death, he agreed to appear in a one hour television special celebrating his 60th anniversary in show business. The show, which was hosted by Gregory Hines, concluded with Davis joining Hines on stage in a competitive dance contest. Davis’s gives a stunning performance. He not only meets Hines’s moves but manages to out dance him by quickly adding a few intricate foot flourishes that the latter was unable to catch. The dance contest concluded with Hines kneeling down on the ground to kiss Davis’s shoes to the great delight of the audience.

I’ve Gotta Be Me celebrates an extraordinary person. The word ‘entertainer’ is often used to sum up Davis and, deservedly so, although his career is so much more than that. He bravely struggled to assert his belief in racial equality and refused to settle for less. As the film’s footage amply illustrates, Davis was an intelligent, thoughtful and caring person who repeatedly confronted major challenges in his professional and personal life. Paula Wayne, like several others interviewed, mentions that Davis, despite great show business successes, continually sought approval. This unfulfilled need to gain acceptance may have been due to the resistance he encountered in his pursuit of a genuinely democratic America. As the documentary makes clear, Sammy Davis, Jr. was and remains a heroic figure.

Richard Lippe


Richard Lippe teaches at York University, Toronto. He has been contributing prefaces to the Wayne State University Press series of new editions of Robin Wood’s directorial monographs and the forthcoming collection of Wood’s writings on the horror film.

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