A SCENE from the new PBS documentary ‘Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me.’.
(photo credit: HAIFA FILM FESTIVAL)
‘Sammy Davis isn’t sure if he wants to be the black Sinatra or the Jewish Sinatra,” is a memorable line from the documentary, Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, which was one of the most enjoyable movies at the 33rd Haifa International Film Festival. The festival runs until October 14 at the Haifa Cinematheque.
Directed by Samuel D. Pollard, who attended the festival and gave a master class, this delightful and entertaining documentary looks at the life and career of a musical star you thought you knew. It portrays a complex, unique and very talented man who courted controversy his whole life. Best known as a member of the Rat Pack with such stars as Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in the 1960s, Davis broke barriers by performing with these white stars, but was also accused of forgetting his people.
He faced racism in the army and later, when he fell in love with the movie star, Kim Novak.
His marriage to the Swedish actress May Britt so outraged many that he received death threats.
Part of the unusual reality of his life is that he converted to Judaism following a car crash in which he lost his eye and found comfort studying the religion with a rabbi he met. He later visited Jerusalem and prayed at the Western Wall.
He literally and figuratively embraced US president Richard Nixon and was the first African American to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House.
A tap-dancing, singing prodigy, Davis was performing since the age of three, so that by the time of his death from cancer in 1990 he had been a star for more than six decades.
Davis acted in such films as Porgy and Bess and made many television appearances.
For those who remember Davis appearing on variety shows toward the end of his life and dancing a bit but not much, one of the surprises in this film is how great a dancer he was, fluid and elegant, a real phenomenon. He inspired younger performers such as Michael Jackson, who performed in a tribute to Davis just before Davis’s death.
Following a screening of the film, Pollard said one clip in particular of rare archival footage of Davis dancing in between two drummers on moving platforms from early in his career was “a revelation.”
Pollard, a documentary director and film editor who has worked with Spike Lee, directed the Sammy Davis film as part of the PBS American Masters series. It will open in theaters in the US and afterwards will be shown on television. Let’s hope it will turn up again in Israel either at the cinematheques or on a documentary channel.
It was shown at Haifa as part of the Cinemart section, programmed by David D’Arcy.