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New Documentary About Sammy Davis Jr. is a Journey Through Troubled Times in U.S.

“Davis’ life was complex, complicated and contradictory.

A new documentary on trailblazing entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. takes us on a journey through a tumultuous period in U.S. history from World War II to Civil Rights and beyond.

Described as the “first major film documentary” to examine Davis’ extraordinary life and career, Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me features interviews with Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg, and Kim Novak, along with never-before-seen photographs from Davis’ personal collection and excerpts from his performances.

Directed by Sam Pollard, the documentary will air as part of the long-running biography series “American Masters” on PBS.

According to the official synopsis for the documentary, “[Davis’] life was complex, complicated and contradictory. Davis strove to achieve the American Dream in a time of racial prejudice and shifting political territory. He was the veteran of increasingly outdated show business traditions trying to stay relevant; he frequently found himself bracketed by the bigotry of white America and the distaste of black America; he was the most public black figure to embrace Judaism, thereby yoking his identity to another persecuted minority.”

Davis’ career would span virtually every entertainment medium of his time—movies, music, TV and stage.

A polarizing figure.

Although a beloved and acclaimed singer, dancer, comedian and actor, Davis could be polarizing offstage. He quietly playing an unheralded role in the civil rights movement but this was overshadowed by his support of President Richard Nixon as well as his association with “Rat Pack” buddies who made him the butt of racial humor. Davis would later concede that he was virtually disowned by the African-American community for it.

His relationship with actress Kim Novak in 1957 was broken up through blunt and violent threats by the studio she was contracted with, for fears of backlash from the public since he was black and she was white.

Davis later married Swedish actress May Britt in 1960, and broke ground on Broadway with an interracial kiss in “Golden Boy.” His interracial marriage to Britt caused him to be disinvited from President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration the following year.

What everyone could agree on was Davis’ talent, from dancing to singing, acting to impersonations—including spot-on renditions of white actors like Humphrey Bogart, which he was told in no uncertain terms not to do.

As Billy Crystal notes, Davis was a “diminutive man” who looked huge when he took the stage, a quality captured in footage from a tribute near the end of his life, when a frail-looking Davis got up and danced with Gregory Hines.

Davis would die of throat cancer at age 64 in 1990.

Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and also played at AFI Fest, DOC NYC, and other festivals throughout the year.

It will premiere on television, February 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS, as part of the “American Masters” series. Previously aired episodes of the series can also be viewed on the PBS website.

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