Sammy Davis Jr. and Charley Pride are both in the American Masters spotlight this week as part of PBS’s celebration of Black History Month, and their stories are undeniably stories of triumph — the child performer from Harlem who grew into one of America’s most popular entertainers, and the sharecropper’s son from the Jim Crow South who dreamed of baseball stardom but instead conquered the largely white world of country music.
Only one feels like a bit of a tragedy.
For Davis, the subject of Sam Pollard’s documentary Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, which makes its American Masters debut on PBS on Tuesday, the very things he saw as signs of having made it — headlining with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as part of the Rat Pack, the invitation to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House — put him out of step with some members of his own race, who saw his very public embrace of Richard M. Nixon as betrayal.
Earlier, it was John F. Kennedy and Sinatra who’d betrayed Davis, with a last-minute withdrawal of an invitation to Kennedy’s inauguration because of controversy over Davis’ interracial marriage to Swedish actress May Britt.
“He couldn’t be accepted in the black community, in the white community. But he had a vision for himself that was bigger than white or black,” says writer Jason King. “He was a universalist.”
Pollard’s film front-loads the Nixon-hug backlash, but it makes strong arguments for Davis’ having been misunderstood by his critics — “His commitment [to civil rights] was never fully recognized historically,” says Harry Belafonte — and, more important, he wasn’t recognized for having been one of the most versatile entertainers in history. If you saw it during its festival run, including at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival, you might still want to watch for the bonus performance footage included in PBS’s presentation.
Beyond the performances, I’ve Gotta Be Me benefits from Davis’ talk-show interviews, which date from an era in which talk-show guests could do more than offer a prepackaged anecdote and set up a clip. In those forums, he sometimes addressed racial issues less jovially than he did in the Rat Pack’s act. And so we see him telling David Letterman about having appeared in blackface as a child, discussing with Dinah Shore the days when black performers in Las Vegas couldn’t live in the hotel, “couldn’t play in the casino, couldn’t go in to have a sandwich after the show,” and talking to an agog David Frost about his father’s disapproval of his son’s daring to perform impressions of white stars like Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney.
Through it all, Davis, whose regrets included never having spent a day in school, comes off as almost achingly introspective, an enormous talent who did his best to power through more obstacles than he should ever have had to face.
“I was always convinced he was going to die on stage,” publicist David Steinberg says of his client, who succumbed to complications of throat cancer in 1990 at 64. “Because it was the only place he was safe.”
Barbara Hall, who directed Friday’s American Masters, Charley Pride: I’m Just Me, had the advantage of telling a story whose subject is still alive and still performing. And talking.
At a PBS session this month at the Television Critics Association’s winter meetings in Pasadena, Pride, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement winner who was the first African American inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, seemed eager to draw a line between the racism he experienced as a child in Mississippi and his reception by country music fans.
Pointing to his skin, he said, “My thing was it wasn’t about all of this. Once I come out and start singing, it didn’t make any difference whether I was pink. They wanted to hear me sing again.”
Pride’s career will also be featured next fall in the Ken Burns documentary series Country Music. His path to musical stardom was in some ways less likely than that of Davis, who was born into a show-business family, and it makes for its own great story.
Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me on American Masters. 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19, WHYY12.