Roush Review: 'Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me' Is a Fascinating Ride Through Cultural History

Matt Roush
Review David Gahr/Getty Images

Was there ever an entertainer as complicated as Sammy Davis Jr.? Versatile and prodigiously talented in song and dance from childhood, he crossed color lines into the mainstream as a charter member of the Rat Pack. But as an undereducated Jewish African-American who married a white woman in the 1960s (Swedish actress May Britt), he never felt entirely accepted by any community.

Such a polarizing lightning rod that he was disinvited to JFK's inaugural gala, Davis later confounded his fans by accepting the embrace of the Nixon administration.

Roush Review: 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' Is a Humanizing, Luminous Portrait of a TV Icon

Roush Review: 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' Is a Humanizing, Luminous Portrait of a TV Icon

Morgan Neville's documentary honors the legacy of beloved 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' creator Fred Rogers.

I've Gotta Be Me, a sensational American Masters biography, revels in the musical achievements and private paradox of a remarkable and pioneering Renaissance man who redefined show-business cool — until he didn’t.

As journalist Jason King notes, "He had a vision for himself that was bigger than white or black." Billy Crystal marvels at his "unique blend of talent, insecurity, anger and perseverance." The film, teeming with performance and interview clips, acknowledges his range with subheadings of Prodigy, Impressionist, Singer, Survivor, Rebel, Leading Man, Activist, Patriot and, toward the end, anachronistic Hipster. His is a fascinating ride through cultural history.

Sammy Davis, Jr. I've Gotta Be Me, Premieres Tuesday, February 19, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)