Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the biggest stars of the stage and screen in the 1960s, but his journey to get there and his path afterward were complex, complicated and contradictory.
The documentary “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” screening on opening night of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, shines a light on the entertainer’s personal life and career as he navigated the civil rights movement and racial progress in 20th century America.
An intelligent and incredibly talented man, Davis never attended any type of school. He started touring and performing at the age of 3 and later was one of the first black performers to sing standards and do impressions of white performers. Long before Barack Obama, Davis was the first free black man to sleep in the White House.
As a member of the Rat Pack with close friends Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Davis thrilled Las Vegas crowds with his myriad of talents. Some have called Davis the most talented entertainer in the Rat Pack for his skills as a singer, dancer, actor and comic.
But he was also a figure shrouded in controversy. From his interracial marriage to Swedish actress May Britt in 1960 to his poorly viewed campaigning for Richard Nixon in 1972, Davis was accused by some of being a sell-out who turned his back on his black American roots.
Somewhat glazed over in the documentary is the motivation behind Davis’ conversion to Judaism after a serious car accident in 1954. Only a quick interview is shown in which Davis discusses the commonalities between the oppression experienced by the African-American and Jewish communities in the United States.
The film, directed by Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Sam Pollard, digs deeper into the motivations of Davis, who is portrayed as a sometimes tragic character with only the best intentions. For all his successes in life, the film leaves you with the question of how much bigger Davis could have been.
(Atlanta Jewish Film Festival screening: Jan. 24, 7:30 p.m., Cobb Energy)