Documentaries: Sammy Davis, Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me (2018) - Reviewed

When it comes to the West Coast film world, Los Angeles commands the landscape. Home of the industry, LA film culture dominates magazine and news headlines, with its numerous awards shows and red carpet events. However, 150 miles to LA’s south, San Diego has its own vibrant film scene. Almost every weekend, cinephiles in San Diego can find a screening or festival featuring films from around the world. Known for being a transplant town, and sharing a border with Mexico, San Diego is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the United States. This diversity only serves to enrich this coastal metropolis’ cinematic experience. The weather doesn’t hurt either, as it’s near perfect daily forecast makes San Diego arguable America’s most beautiful mainland locale. You cannot really blame Comic-con for making this city its home. Often, you will hear native San Diegans tell you there is only one other city on the planet with weather as nice as their hometown, and that is Tel Aviv, Israel.
Last week, San Diego’s Jewish community celebrated its 28th film festival, which I had the pleasure of attending. A program of the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture, the San Diego Jewish Film Festival showcases documentary, short-subject and feature films, surrounding Jewish themes, from all over the world. The festival’s opening night feature film was the documentary Sammy Davis, Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me. Produced by PBS’ American Masters series and directed by Peabody Award Winner, Sam Pollard, the film explores the many faces of the life of entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.

Forgoing the use of a narrator, I’ve Gotta Be Me tells the complex and influential story of Sammy Davis, Jr. through interviews with celebrities like Jerry Lewis, Kim Novak, Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg and others. These interviews outline a career riddled with controversy, as Sammy David, Jr. constantly pushed the boundaries set for black entertainers in the days of a segregated America. As the trailer states, “His gift was his talent, the curse was being black in America.”

Having absolutely no formal training, Sammy’s natural talent quickly rose him through the ranks of the entertainment world. “Sammy was show business from the tip of his toes to the top of his head”, the film explains, and as an entertainer, Sammy wanted nothing more than to be loved for his art. His natural talent and love of the work drove him to reach and push the constantly changing goal posts set for him. As a result, Sammy David, Jr. challenged taboos including impersonating, marrying and public displays of affection with, white people.

Being Black History Month, and being a member of both the Jewish and Black communities, it is fitting that this film was the opening night feature. Prior to the screening, festival attendees were lucky enough to hear the film’s writer Larry Maslon give an introduction. Associate chair and Arts Professor for the Graduate Acting Program at NYU, Maslon has written numerous books on entertainment including, American Musicals (1927-1969); Superheroes! Capes, Cowls and the Creation of Comic Book Culture; Some Like It Hot: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion; The South Pacific Companion; and, The Sound of Music Companion (2007; revised with foreword by Julie Andrews, 2015). He explained that his inspiration for creating the film was a Washington Post article outlining the 20 most influential black entertainers in America. The piece did not include Sammy Davis, Jr., which after seeing this film, feels absurd. Maslon told the audience he was afraid America was forgetting about this significant figure and that young people did not even know his name.

When I was in college, I purchased a photo of Sammy Davis, Jr. from one of those campus posters sales, characteristic of universities across the country. It’s a copy of one of photographer Phil Stern’s photographs from the mid-1950s, with Davis jumping in the air. After seeing this film, I decided to go home and dig it out of one of my dusty portfolios. Sammy Davis, Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me reminded me why I felt compelled to purchase the photo in the first place, as this is an entertainer we should all cherish. His photo now sits on my bookshelf as a constant reminder of how lucky we are as Americans to call Sammy Davis, Jr. one of our own.

Currently the film is making the festival circuit with hopes for an official cinematic release. With so much intellectual property, this release would be expensive and unlikely. However, Sammy Davis, Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me is a product of PBS and will eventually be released for home viewing. I highly recommend it. 

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-Dawn Stronski