Written by Tristan Olav Torgersen
Originally posted on IndieEntertainmentMagazine.com
December 1, 2017
Sammy Davis, Jr.
His name just rolls off of the tongue. Born December 8, 1925, Samuel George Davis, Jr. was born to revolutionize the entertainment industry. He fought through racial discrimination, economic hardship, and physical detriments alike to become one of the most lauded and iconic entertainers in his 64 years on this earth.
Award-winning director Sam Pollard beautifully weaves the story of Sammy Davis, Jr. into a must-see documentary. Presented by American Masters Pictures, the film recently debuted at Toronto International Film Festival.
“Whether I find a place in this world or never belong
I gotta be me, I’ve gotta be me”
Sammy Davis, Jr. was an uneducated Puerto Rican and African-American entertainer. He served in the first integrated Army regiment. He converted to Judaism not long after that. He lost his left eye early in his career as a result of a car accident. Sammy was a walking anomaly.
“[Sammy] was such a unique blend of talent, and insecurity, and anger, and perseverance. What he went through to get to there, you know, being accepted.” Billy Crystal’s praises of Sammy carry throughout the documentary, as do so many others. His life was anything but ideal, yet he made something grand of it.
Rather than attend school, Sammy’s parents took him on their travels as entertainers. He became an entertainer on the Chitlin Circuit by age 3. He then appeared in a filmed musical short by age 7. He learned to sing, to tap dance, and to feel at home performing.
Sammy was drafted into the first integrated infantry at Fort Francis in Wyoming. There he suffered beatings, abuse, and derision at the hands of his supposed comrades. He would occasionally fight back and win. Yet he realized that as one soldier pointed out, even if he won “he was still [black].”
He decided to put his performing talents to work and soon won the respect and admiration of those same soldiers. Although painful, Sammy’s experience in the armed forces shaped his career and his tactic for fighting racism.
Once he left the forces, Sammy continued his impressions, impersonating white entertainers. Those risky impressions gained him both respect and hatred within the white community. He was breaking down walls, he was crossing borders. He challenged the status quo. No longer was a white man covering his face in burnt cork to play a negro. Instead, an African-American took the stage and perfectly imitated beloved white entertainers.
Sammy wasn’t just talented. He was dangerously talented.
It was said that, “He didn’t want to be seen as a black entertainer, he wanted to be seen as an entertainer.” He got his wish, but not without a lifetime of struggle and strife.
I would tell more and more, but that would leave nothing for the documentary. I was captivated from start to finish. I was reeled in. I want to know more about Sammy Davis, Jr. I can’t stop listening to his music.
Needless to say, director Sam Pollard left his mark with this documentary.
This beautifully crafted film assembles a diverse group of fellow entertainers, assistants, lovers, and friends close to Sammy. Their words and stories add a depth and personal touch to the story that is palpable. If you look closely you can still see the wonder and amazement in each of their eyes as they talk about his life and accomplishments.
“He felt that the audience was special. He was bringing his own love of doing what he was doing to them.” – Jerry Lewis
“Sammy was the epitome of extravagance.” – Writer and Composer Buz Kohen
“I was always convinced he was going to die on stage, because that was the only place he was safe.” – David Steinberg, Publicist for Sammy Davis, Jr.
“He was a wonderful one-of-a-kind comet who flew past the Earth way too quickly” – Billy Crystal
The praises only amplified the emotions and awe I felt while watching the film.
The Candyman. The Golden Boy. Mr. Bojangles. No nickname, no personality, no character could hold a candle to Sammy Davis, Jr. He was larger than life. He was talented beyond measure. He was a genius. He was a lover. He was an inspiration.
Nonetheless, his heartfelt lyrics held true to his dying breath.
I’ve gotta be me! – Sammy Davis, Jr.