One of the best showbiz biographies in a long while happens to be about Mr. Show Business himself, Sammy Davis, Jr. “In Black and White” does splendid justice to its subject while brilliantly touching on the larger theme of race in 20th century America.
Author Wil Haygood pulls no punches with his wise, critical view of Davis, but he also makes sure to place into context Davis’s often controversial actions. The star’s romances with white women (from Kim Novak to second wife May Britt) are chronicled at length, yet never do the details seem exploitative. Rather, by piercing the tabloid fodder, Haygood illuminates the social and racial prejudices at the time.
Haygood also fleshes out embarrassing episodes with care and consideration — Davis’s infidelities, his problems with drugs, and his widow’s fights with the IRS. Haygood reveals a few poignant details, such as the fact Davis couldn’t read until he was an adult and that his desire to impress up-and-coming star Eartha Kitt motivated him to study modern art.
Ultimately, Haygood fleshes out a haunting and haunted figure, a Horatio Alger or Sammy Glick whose desperation is pathetic rather than hateful. We learn all about Davis’s tough beginnings and troubled family history in North Carolina. Haygood also makes Davis’s eyebrow-raising choices more understandable.
Given how few opportunities were available for Davis (and other blacks) to star in films, we better grasp why Davis lobbied to appear as Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess,” a film many at the time in the African-American community felt was racist and should not have been produced. Haygood writes Davis “was hungrier than all the heated protests of all the stereotypes of Hollywood cinema combined.” As for Davis’s campaigning for Richard M. Nixon in 1972, Haygood explains how the Kennedys dissed Davis a decade earlier and that Davis also worked on behalf of many liberal causes.
Still, Haygood never gets hagiographic. The author even begins “In Black and White” by uncovering all the falsehoods Davis tells in
his 1965 autobiography, “Yes I Can.” Much later, we learn of Davis’s interest in pornography and even devil-worshipping.
Of course, Haygood always remembers Davis’s talent, which is how he conquered vaudeville, Broadway, television, and radio. The warts-and-all study of how Davis made it is not too flattering, but that quality helps make “In Black and White” a fascinating read.