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‘Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me’ is an electric look at an enigmatic performer (TIFF Review)

September 13, 2017
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Black entertainers in this country shoulder a burden that we don’t often consider – that of representation. Even now in the 21st century, the Black artist must carry the entire race with them as they navigate career, politics and the complexities of their personal lives. Watching from the sidelines, we expect –perhaps unconsciously, for these larger than life figures to make choices that are conscious of their Blackness. We are desperate for them to recognize that their visibility affects the community as a whole.

In the 20th century, at a time when Black visibility in the entertainment space was nearly scarce– consummate entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. an enigmatic and unparalleled talent was often labeled an Uncle Tom and sell-out. He was seen as out of touch with the realities of everyday Black people because of the company that he kept publically. In his well-honed and rapidly paced documentary Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, filmmaker Sam Pollard dives deep into the six-decade long career of Davis — one that began on the streets of Harlem and ended just before his death in 1990, with a television tribute starring everyone from Michael Jackson to Gregory Hines.

A man with no formal education whatsoever, Davis had traveled across the country ten times by the time he was 10-years old. Born into a family of entertainers, Davis won his first amateur performance at three years old, and he would continue to defy expectations and shatter glass ceilings throughout his career. Using Davis’ own words with old archival footage of interviews and his performances, with input from historians and his friends, lover, and admirers, including, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis and Kim Novak, Pollard’s film is electric.

Despite his magnetic career, Davis’ desperate desire to be seen as merely an entertainer and not necessarily a Black entertainer put him at odds with the community. It was something that deeply pained him, especially since he was a patriot, avid member of the Civil Rights Movement and a dear friend to Martin Luther King, Jr. Though they are often overlooked when his career is considered as a whole, Pollard is careful to highlight Davis’ philanthropic and civil contributions. Dear friends with Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis and Harry Belafonte, Davis raised over $5 million for the Civil Rights Movement during Freedom Summer. He was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and he was present at both Selma and the March on Washington.

Continue reading at Shadow and Act.