This year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival opens with a fast-paced, energetic documentary about the legendary Sammy Davis Jr. “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” directed by Sam Pollard, raises the curtain on a complicated man whose six decades as an entertainer, civil rights activist and Jew were often marked by controversies over race and politics. Davis himself often cracked wise about his disparate identities: “I’m Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored and married to a white woman—when I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out.”

Davis was born in 1925 into a segregated world. His talent was evident by the age of 3. He burst onto the vaudeville scene in Harlem as a tiny dynamo who sang and tap-danced uninhibitedly. His father and godfather were also vaudeville dancers, and Davis joined their act as a child star. He forwent a proper education for stardom and regretted that he never learned to write beyond a third-grade level.

While Davis is front and center in the documentary, additional insight into his life comes through in interviews with the likes of Billy Crystal, Kim Novak, Norman Lear, Whoopi Goldberg and Jerry Lewis. Crystal described Davis as “a giant of a guy who spoke Yiddish, converted to Judaism, had great knowledge. He could talk to me like one of my uncles.”

Lewis was a close friend of Davis. When Davis was in a devastating car accident in 1954 that took his left eye, Lewis flew to his bedside. While recuperating, a rabbi ministered to Davis, and the encounter made him realize there was a spiritual void in his life. Judaism was a way to fill it. Davis’ conversion to Judaism was a watershed moment for Jews and African-Americans—here was a black man who was also a devoted Jew.

Throughout his life, Davis notably crossed racial lines. He fell in love with actor Kim Novak, who was reportedly his true love. Harry Cohn, the despotic head of Columbia Pictures, was against the relationship, and it was widely believed he had put out a contract on Davis if he continued the affair. The threat intimidated Davis into marrying an African-American singer, whom he divorced a year later.


However, in 1960 Davis was emboldened, and he married the Swedish actress May Britt. The couple received bomb threats, and the American Nazi Party picketed outside of Davis’ performances. He had already integrated the famous Rat Pack and joined his friend Frank Sinatra in supporting John Kennedy for president. Although Davis brought out the black vote for Kennedy, the newly elected president abruptly withdrew an invitation to the inaugural ball. Kennedy was worried about alienating his Southern base if a mixed-race couple was there.

By the time the civil rights movement arrived in 1963, Davis was about to integrate Broadway in a bold way. He was starring in the Broadway hit “Golden Boy,” and was believed to be the first African-American man to kiss a white woman on stage. Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan and was taken with the song “No More,” which featured the lyrics, “I ain’t bowin’ down no more.”

Davis, however, was hesitant to take an active role in the movement. He knew how much he was hated in the South and was wary of making a public appearance. His fear was coupled with the fact that he didn’t want to take off a night from “Golden Boy.” His friend Harry Belafonte finally convinced him to join King on the 1965 March to Selma after Belafonte bought all the tickets to the show so Davis wouldn’t lose money.

Davis compromised his role as an activist when he famously hugged Republican president Richard Nixon on a campaign stop in 1972. The civil rights community rebuffed the entertainer, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the first African-American man to sleep in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom.

In 1974, Davis guest-starred on his favorite show, “All in the Family.” In typical Davis fashion, he planted a kiss on Carroll O’Connor’s character, Archie Bunker. Lear, creator of “All in the Family,” called it “an iconic TV moment, a black man putting his lips on a white cheek.”

Throughout the years Davis had his troubles with alcohol and drugs. In 1990, he died of throat cancer at the age of 64. But a few months prior to his death, a television special celebrating Davis’ 60-year career in show business featured a young Michael Jackson poignantly singing to a visibly moved Davis, “Thanks to you, there’s a door we all walk through.”

“Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” will open the Boston Jewish Film Festival on Wednesday, Nov. 7, at Coolidge Corner Theatre. A musical presentation will precede the screening, which will be followed by a conversation with director Sam Pollard. Find more information here.