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'Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me' review: Entertaining  tribute to a consummate performer

Sammy Davis, Jr. kicks it up in a

Sammy Davis, Jr. kicks it up in a photo from the documentary "Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me." Credit: The Estate of Altovise Davis

DOCUMENTARY "Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me" on "American Masters"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Famed member of the "Rat Pack," singer of '70s hits like "The Candy Man," Sammy Davis Jr. — who died in 1990 at  64 — was so much more. This 2017 film by veteran documentary producer Samuel Pollard ("Eyes on the Prize," "ACORN and the Firestorm") covers a long career on the stage and screen, but especially explores Davis' long struggle to transcend race.


MY SAY Figuring out where to start a biography on a major figure is hard enough, but consider the complications with Sammy Davis Jr. — a 61-year career that began at age three, and spanned the chitlin' circuit to the big (and small) screen, with every stop in between. Davis did everything in show business, and did it particularly well, but director Sam Pollard decides to start with that iconic 1972 photo of Davis hugging Richard M. Nixon at the Republican National Convention.

This in fact just might be the best possible place to begin because everything in this remarkable life now seems reduced, unfairly, to that one snapshot. "I've Gotta Be Me" sizes up that electric moment, which infuriated African-Americans, and then methodically begins answering the "why."  

The backlash wounded Davis, who saw himself as a trailblazer, not a sellout, but the film does establish one possible reason — Nixon genuinely liked Davis and the feeling was apparently mutual, at least at first. Davis became the first black man to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom at Nixon's invitation. Just a little more than 10 years earlier, John F. Kennedy had disinvited Davis to his inaugural, fearful of the reaction of Southern Democrats angered by his marriage to the Swedish actress May Britt.

Maybe Davis' impromptu hug was motivated by nothing more than simple gratitude. The benighted Nixon kinder to him than the sanctified Kennedy. Who could have imagined? But then who could have imagined anything in this career?

 According to the many accounts in this film, Davis was gracious, generous and loyal even on the rare occasion when the loyalty was not repaid. Paula Wayne, Davis' co-star in Broadway's "Golden Boy" (who died last fall), in particular lashes out at Frank Sinatra for not coming to Davis' side after the Kennedy snub.

Moreover, he was a civil rights activist and an important one, given his stature as a major entertainer. He had that so-called "crossover" appeal that landed him squarely in the middle of an overwhelming white entertainment world. Writer Margo Jefferson recalls that as a child, whenever stars like Lena Horne or Davis appeared on some TV screen, friends would instantly call friends "because these were some of the only places where we were visible as part of an exciting, thrilling scene [and] by feeling special we could for a time feel equal."

 Davis' talent was protean. He was a world-class hoofer and one of the best pop singers of his generation. He had perfect comic timing, enormous stage presence and screen presence. "I've Gotta Be Me" — the title comes from the song from the 1968 musical "Golden Rainbow," and which was to become a Davis signature — barely touches on the movie career, but films like "Robin and the Seven Hoods" and "Ocean's Eleven" were huge in their day. So was their top-billing star.

He aged and his career flagged, but the survivor found new hits and new audiences. "I've Gotta Be Me" ends with 1990's ABC tribute to Davis' 60-year career. Davis would be dead from throat cancer within a few months, but when he takes the stage with Gregory Hines, it's like a shot of energy with a chaser of joy. In the end, the showman even manages to steal his own show, too.  

BOTTOM LINE A fascinating tribute to the consummate performer, this doc also sets the record straight on his politics and civil rights record.

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