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6 things we learned from the film Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me

We spoke to director Sam Pollard about his documentary on the famous entertainer that screened at TIFF.
Sammy Davis Jr. in a still from the film Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me (The Estate of Altovise Davis)

Sammy Davis Jr: I've Gotta Be Me, an impressive documentary film that screened at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, reveals the complexity and duality of Davis Jr., one of the most important, trailblazing and polarizing black entertainers of the 20th century.

Directed by documentary veteran Sam Pollard, the film does not shy away from controversy, such as Davis Jr.'s unpopular support for the Vietnam War and endorsement of President Nixon, while showing the depth and breadth of talent of the entertainer who died in 1990 at the age of 64.

"I grew up with Sammy Davis Jr. in the '60s and the '70s. I had seen him perform on television on The Ed Sullivan Show," says Pollard in an interview with the q digital staff, talking about taking the project on. "I had seen him in the movies with Frank Sinatra — like Ocean's 11 [and] Sergeants 3 — so I was very familiar with him and I was very excited about doing it. Any time I'm sort of comfortable with the subject and there's a story about the African-American experience, I like to attach myself to it."

Pollard has had a long and distinguished career and has an ongoing creative relationship with Spike Lee, whom he has known for almost 30 years. But Pollard's track record as a documentary film editor, producer and writer is extensive and extremely impressive in its own right, ranging from the Peabody Award-winning 1987 civil rights history series Eyes on the Prize to his latest endeavour, Sammy Davis Jr: I've Gotta Be Me.

Here are six things we learned from watching Pollard's new film.

1. There's an inordinate amount of archival footage of Davis Jr. 

Months before he died, Davis Jr. was honoured for his 60th anniversary in showbiz, a remarkable feat given he was 64 years old when he died. That means there's an abundance of footage of Davis Jr., from his childhood up to the time of his death. "There must be 200 hours of material of Sammy," says Pollard. "We had so much stuff to look at. There's Sammy in films I didn't even put in, like A Man Called Adam. There's Sammy on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Ed Kantor Show, all these other shows. He was in All in the Family. There was so much footage. The challenge was how to find the best moments to use."

2. Adversity spurred him to do impressions

After experiencing intense racism in the army, where he was urinated on, painted white and severely beaten, Davis Jr. decided to fight back with his talent, spurring him to do impressions.

"Every time there was an obstacle in his way, he used his talent to push through it, to push through it, to push through it — 'cause he was a diminutive man and he knew that his size or his fists wasn't going to get him over," says Pollard. "But when he got on that stage, when he sang, when he danced, when he did those impressions, when he did those comedy routines, he could win anybody over."

3. Davis Jr.'s impressions were considered controversial in their day

"That was a revelation for me. I grew up watching him do Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart but I never knew the stigma for a black person back in the '40s to imitate white people," says Pollard. "When he tells that story to [interviewer] David Frost about how his dad and his uncle reacted when he was imitating Cagney and Jimmy Stewart, I said, 'Wow, man we forget, us being younger, we forget the stigma of segregation and racism in this world.'"

​4. We forgot what a phenomenal dancer Davis Jr. was

The film is divided into several sections — "impressionist," "hipster" and "actor" — but while combing through the footage, Pollard discovered new things about the man he was already quite familiar with.

"Two things were revelatory for me. I always knew he was a good tap dancer," says Pollard. "By the time I got to see Sammy and I was 14, 15 years old, in '64, '65 and '66, you didn't see him dance that much. He was doing more comedy bits with the Rat Pack. He was singing a lot more, he was acting, he was doing impressions. That footage you see where he's dancing with the two drummers in the background, I thought that was superb."

"You just saw the calibre of his craftmanship as a dancer. It was phenomenal," Pollard continues. "The other moment which I had seen, but in the context of this film, comes across so well is that last dance sequence with Gregory Hines. For me, that's heartbreaking. If you know Gregory Hines and how great a dancer he was. ... It's an amazing moment."

5. Racism was inherent part of the Rat Pack act

"For us in the 21st century, it feels like cooning. It's a very tricky thing to see that in the film," Pollard says, referring to the Rat Pack footage. "When I was 13, 14, I laughed; I didn't think it was cooning, I thought it was fun. Now, when I see it, it's like, 'Ooh.' Because stuff that was cool to a certain degree becomes not so cool now. And even [Harry] Belafonte knew it wasn't cool back then after a while, because Sammy was the brunt of all the Goddamn jokes." 

Sammy Davis Jr. poses with members of the Rat Pack in Las Vegas. (TIFF )

6. Davis Jr.'s talent was so big it couldn't fit into the film

"He was so multi-dimensional," says Pollard. "The guy could do everything. He could see someone do something [clicks fingers] and pick it up and do it himself. We didn't really focus on the fact he could also play trumpet. He also played bass, he also played vibraphone, he could play a little piano. He was a real sponge."

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