Review: PBS'American Masters - Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me Sammy Davis, Jr. could sing, dance and act. In PBS' American Masters documentary, a central theme is how Davis coped with the realities of life as a black entertainer in a racist America.
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Review: PBS'American Masters - Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me

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Review: PBS'American Masters - Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me

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Review: PBS'American Masters - Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me

Review: PBS'American Masters - Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me

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Sammy Davis, Jr. could sing, dance and act. In PBS' American Masters documentary, a central theme is how Davis coped with the realities of life as a black entertainer in a racist America.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The artist Sammy Davis Jr. was more than a triple threat. He could dance. He could act. He could do celebrity impressions. And he could belt out pop hits like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. BOJANGLES")

SAMMY DAVIS JR: (Singing) Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles.

GREENE: But that song about a song and dance man who fell on hard times also summed up Davis' worries about being left behind as a performer. That's according to a new biography airing tonight as part of the "American Masters" series on PBS. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has this review.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: On the surface, Sammy Davis Jr. had it all - a master dancer, musician, actor and singer who hung with Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack and made a hit out of a soaring anthem for perseverance and individuality, "I've Gotta Be Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOTTA BE ME")

DAVIS JR: (Singing) I gotta be me.

DEGGANS: But as comic Billy Crystal notes in the film, there was self-doubt and pain behind his dazzling facade.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAMMY DAVIS JR.: I'VE GOTTA BE ME")

BILLY CRYSTAL: Sammy is such a unique blend of talent and insecurity.

DEGGANS: Crystal, who performed a famous impersonation of Davis on "Saturday Night Live," joins a slew of compelling voices in PBS' "American Masters" documentary "Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me." A central theme of this poignant film - how Davis struggled to live on his own terms while coping with the realities of life as a black entertainer in a racist America. Director Sam Pollard digs deep, offering film clips of Davis as a child performing in a movie alongside Ethel Waters in 1933.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

DAVIS JR: (Singing) I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal, you.

DEGGANS: After performing in vaudeville with his family, Davis served a stint in one of the Army's first integrated units, where he faced loads of abuse from white soldiers. It wasn't long before Davis emerged as a star on his own. But he kept running into the boundaries America tried to place on black entertainers. Film star Kim Novak, who was a white, blonde, sex symbol in the 1950s, speaks about her romance with Davis back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAMMY DAVIS JR.: I'VE GOTTA BE ME")

KIM NOVAK: I had no idea the prejudice was the way it was. I was always colorblind. Anyway, it was so ridiculous, the whole thing. At that time, the world was not ready for that change.

DEGGANS: The film says their romance ended when the head of Columbia Pictures threatened Davis' life if he didn't marry a black woman. Harry Belafonte talks about how even though Davis was accepted by friends and fellow Rat Pack-ers like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, they didn't always treat him so well onstage in the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAMMY DAVIS JR.: I'VE GOTTA BE ME")

HARRY BELAFONTE: Sinatra and Joey Bishop and Dean Martin began to do these outrageously racist jokes with Sammy Davis Jr. as the brunt of that ill-advised humor.

FRANK SINATRA: Keep smiling, Smokey, so everybody knows where you are.

DEGGANS: The film notes Davis could be tone deaf about social issues, especially during the Vietnam era. He angered black people by endorsing and hugging President Richard Nixon. The film then features audio, which seems to reveal the president nearly calling Davis the N-word while describing his visit to the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAMMY DAVIS JR.: I'VE GOTTA BE ME")

RICHARD NIXON: This is the first time he had ever performed at the White House and the first time a - an American black has ever stayed overnight in the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Isn't that great?

NIXON: I didn't announce it, of course. I said - I says, I don't want to exploit it. He says, I know.

DEGGANS: Pollard's film expertly depicts the line Davis always had to negotiate between his ambitions and what society would accept. It shows a man with boundless talents, who often wasn't fully accepted by black or white society. Davis died in 1990 at age 64 after a struggle with throat cancer. But "I've Gotta Be Me" showcases how his struggles blazed a trail for all the entertainers of color who came after him, who have much more latitude in their art and life because of the barriers he knocked down. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. BOJANGLES")

DAVIS JR: (Singing) I knew a man, Bojangles...

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