‘I’ve Gotta Be Me’ explores Sammy Davis Jr. career and contradictions

"Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me" captures an entertainer who was a mass of contradictions, showcasing his prodigious and remarkably varied talent, juxtaposed with his often tone-deaf forays into politics. Full credit: David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images

“Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” captures an entertainer who was a mass of contradictions, showcasing his prodigious and remarkably varied talent, juxtaposed with his often tone-deaf forays into politics. More than a mere appreciation, this look at Davis’ personal journey through a tumultuous period in US history makes this an especially rich “American Masters” documentary.

Davis broke boundaries, and quietly played a unheralded role in the civil rights movement. Yet he also embraced (literally, much to the chagrin of many) President Richard Nixon, while palling around with “Rat Pack” buddies who made him the butt of racial humor, interludes that caused him — as Davis addresses in later interviews — to be virtually disowned by the African-American community.

Director Sam Pollard tries to do justice to the entirety of Davis’ story, from becoming a performer at an early age (to the point where he never formally attended school) to his relationship with actress Kim Novak — broken up, through blunt and violent threats, by the studio, which couldn’t abide by the notion of a white star involved with an African-American man.

Davis married Swedish actress May Britt in 1960, and broke ground on Broadway with an interracial kiss in “Golden Boy.” But each step forward seemingly came with one back, making Davis a source of controversy in ways that appeared at times to mystify and surprise him.

What no one could deny, ultimately, was Davis’ talent, from dancing to singing, acting to impersonations — including spot-on renditions of white actors, like Humphrey Bogart, which he was told in no uncertain terms not to do. (There’s an anecdote about Bogart himself counseling Davis on how to portray him.)

As Billy Crystal notes, Davis was a “diminutive man” who looked huge when he took the stage, a quality captured in footage from a tribute near the end of his life, when a frail-looking Davis got up and danced with Gregory Hines.

According to Harry Belafonte, Davis’ commitment to the civil rights struggle “was never fully recognized historically.”

For that, Davis largely had himself to blame, along with a star-struck mentality regarding Frank Sinatra, Nixon and others whose friendship didn’t always serve him well, such as when Davis was disinvited from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural festivities.

Davis’ career spanned virtually every entertainment medium of his time — movies, music, TV and stage — as he sought to transcend race at a time when high-profile entertainers and athletes were making statements and taking stands.

The soaring elements of Davis’ professional life thus kept brushing into tragic ones, placing a somewhat ironic note on the documentary’s subtitle. While Davis was known for bringing his stamp to classics like “The Candy Man” and “Mr. Bojangles,” “I’ve Gotta Be Me” was the song that perhaps best defined him, given the contradictions in terms of who Davis — in juggling the roles of person, performer and celebrity — truly was.

“Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” premieres February 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS.

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