Jewish Film Festival offers a gamut of choices
He was complicated, courageous and conflicted.
A new biopic about a superstar, “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” will be the July 29 closing night Jewish Film Festival screening in San Francisco at the Castro Theatre.
The comprehensive documentary emphasizes how the dancer/singer/mimic/musician/actor catapulted, during his six-decade career, over racial (and religious) hurdles in show business and politics.
Davis, who converted to Judaism after losing an eye in an auto accident, had started singing and dancing at age three. As an adult, he consistently broke society’s rules and courted controversy — by dating white actress Kim Novak and later marrying an international Caucasian star, Mai Britt; by flaunting his coolness by being the only black member of Frank Sinatra’s infamous Rat Pack; by first supporting the presidential candidacy of Democrat John F. Kennedy and then of Republican Richard M. Nixon; and by marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.
He was the first African-American to do stage impressions of white celebrities, the first to kiss a white woman on Broadway (in “Golden Boy”), and the first black to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House.
Some folks — especially African-Americans who viewed him as an Uncle Tom — didn’t like his racial humor, though — as when he declared, “I’m colored, Jewish and Puerto Rican. When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out.”
The film also deals, significantly, with Davis’ insatiable desire to overcome racial humiliations (and beatings) and be accepted.
When I saw him perform solo at the Copacabana night club in Manhattan in 1964 when I was 26, I was totally oblivious to his multi-various conflicts or the animosity some felt toward him. I was aware only of his enormous talent.
This doc, which I thoroughly enjoyed despite a few cringeworthy moments that agitated my political biases, contains amazing clips that crystallize the disparate aspects of an all-too-human icon.
Still, it pushes the ugliness of racism in my face as Donald Trump continues to play the race card again and again.
“I’ve Gotta Be Me” is only one of 67 films — many of them using music as a backdrop for cultural commentary — from 23 countries that the JFF will screen. In addition to San Francisco, they’re slated for theaters in San Rafael, Albany, Oakland and Palo Alto.
A total of 40,000 attendees are expected.
Another racially oriented documentary, albeit in a kumbaya vein, is “Satan and Adam,” a buddy movie involving a black blues guitarist and a white mouth harp player who met on the streets of Harlem.
The first half of the film deals with the dual 12-year success — despite the racial tension of the times — of the self-named Mr. Satan (aka Sterling Magee, who had played with Ray Charles, Etta James and Marvin Gaye) and Adam Gussow, a Princeton grad who had to overcome barrels of self-doubt.
The second half deals, less energetically but even more inspirationally, with McGee’s rehabilitation as a nursing home resident after a nervous breakdown and stroke, and Gussow’s moving into an academic and writing career that revolved around music and race.
“Satan and Adam” switches — like “I Gotta Be Me” — from black ‘n’ white to color and back again. But its real success is about a musical “odd couple” breaking a color line.
Another JFF documentary deals with a celebrity in another genre, Banksy, a British street artist who prefers anonymity but whose works have nevertheless been selling for tens of thousands of dollars each. The title, “The Man Who Stole Banksy,” refers to the removal and sale of a multi-ton painting on a massive outside wall not far from Jerusalem that depicts an Israeli soldier checking the ID of a donkey.
Along the way, the film deals with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, ethics (including who owns the rights to what), and greed in the art industry.
Another highlight is “Simon & Théodore,” a fascinating and troubling subtitled French-language fiction flick about neediness. It’s an intimate, sensitive portrait of an unhappy teenage boy befriended by the mentally ill, self-destructive husband of a pregnant female rabbi.
If that sounds fairly heavy, it is. But like many good foreign movies, the acting is superb and the characters look and feel real — no good-looking Hollywood stereotypes in search of a story.
The film’s only distraction for me was that the ill-named title characters are the same as Alvin’s two anthropomorphic cartoon chipmunk sidekicks.
“Love, Gilda,” not incidentally, will be the JFF opener July 19.
That slick documentary, which features a galaxy of comedy stars as talking heads, is a comprehensive biopic of Gilda Radner, the Saturday Night Live star who invented such unforgettable characters as loudmouth Roseanne Rosannadanna, mistake-prone Emily Latella, nerd Lisa Loopner and a Barbara Walters burlesque, Baba Wawa.
The film — based on Radner diaries and audio tapes — is a tribute to the comedienne’s talent (her classic bits still make me laugh out loud) but it doesn’t whitewash her problems: anorexia and bulimia, depression, her flitting from one boyfriend to the next, and her chronic loneliness (at least until she married comedic actor Gene Wilder five years before she died from ovarian cancer at age 42).
The doc had a substantial impact on me — and my wife, who, like Gilda, was an escapee from Detroit, but unlike Gilda, a cancer survivor.
As always, though, the festival offers a gamut of choices likely to provide, as the cliché goes, something for everyone — Jewish or not.