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Rehabbing Sammy Davis, Jr. in PBS' I've Gotta Be Me

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Jr. partners: Sammy Davis & the Rev. Martin Luther King. PBS photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The complexities of Sammy Davis, Jr. run far deeper than that hug of Richard Nixon or those deferential, knee-slapping, “with your kind permission” appearances on a variety of talk shows.

PBS’ venerable American Masters series gets at some of them in Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me (Tuesday, Feb. 19th from 8 to 10 p.m. central). It’s a workmanlike and long overdue look at a misunderstood mega-talent who’s been dead for nearly 30 years and still is yet to get a scripted feature film bio.

“In the end he was deeply hurt that he was seen as an Uncle Tom,” says African-American essayist Gerald Early.

Directed by Sam Pollard, Gotta Be Me is rich in archival clips of performances and Davis’ lesser seen introspective interviews with the likes of David Frost and Arsenio Hall. But it’s somewhat impoverished in terms of what drove Davis to the heights and depths of his fame.

Unfortunately, the nearly two-hour film (including bonus performance footage at the end) comes and goes without any input from African-American author Wil Haygood. His 2003 book, In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr., is the definitive biography of its subject. Haygood in part strove to correct what he believed to be the copious fiction presented in 1965’s Yes I Can, a bestseller in which Davis collaborated with journalist/publicist Burt Boyar and his wife, Jane Boyar.

Burt Boyar, who died in 2018, lived long enough to be interviewed for Gotta Be Me. And his comments are spread throughout the film. But Haygood, or any mention of his book, are entirely left out. I’ve read it. It’s monumental.

On the flip side, filmmaker Pollard deserves credit for finding and including actress Paula Wayne, likewise recently deceased. Wayne, who still very much speaks her mind in Gotta Be Me, co-starred with Davis in his hit 1964 show Golden Boy. Their full on the lips interracial kiss was a first -- for Broadway, TV or the big screen.

“I said, ‘Yeah, so? Let’s do it,” Wayne recalls before Davis asked her if she was prepared for the “aftermath.”

“What aftermath?!” Wayne remember saying incredulously.

The aftermath included picketing of subsequent performances. And Wayne recalls hearing of herself: “She’s the one that kissed the nigger . . . How’s that grab ya? It was awful.”

Earlier in his career, Davis was kissed off by newly elected President John F. Kennedy, who disinvited him at the last minute from performing at his 1961 inaugural gala along with fellow Rat Packer Frank Sinatra. Davis was newly married to Swedish actress May Britt, and JFK reportedly didn’t want to offend Southern Democrats.

“I’m confused as (to) why Frank Sinatra didn’t stand up for him,” Wayne says. ”Wrong on so many levels. And he was desperately hurt.”

The embrace of Nixon, who had gone out of his way to befriend Davis, is better understood in this context. As documented in Haygood’s aforementioned book (but not in Gotta Be Me), Nixon had been an early adapter who as a U.S. Senator had gone out of his way to see Davis’ show at the Copa club and later meet him backstage. As President, Nixon also invited Davis and his third wife, Altovise (who’s never mentioned at all in the film), to be the first African-Americans to sleep in the storied Lincoln bedroom. They accepted.

Nixon gave Davis “high regard as a person,” Early says. And the eager-to-please entertainer lapped it up, later to his regret. “The Hug,” during an event at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami, made Davis a pariah among many in the black community. All but forgotten was his earlier embrace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on whose behalf he raised money and attended civil rights rallies.

“His commitment was never fully recognized historically,” says Harry Belafonte, who on the other hand is critical of the racial humor aimed at Davis during Rat Pack appearances with Sinatra, Dean Martin and Joey Bishop.

Billy Crystal dismisses this as “different times . . . That was part of their thing. He was a good sport about it.” (No mention is made of Crystal wearing blackface to do his recurrent Sammy Davis impressions, most recently during the opening to the 2012 Oscars.)

Gotta Be Me also addresses the brutal racism Davis encountered while in the military, his lack of any formal education during a show biz career that began at age three and his formative years with The Will Mastin Trio, which also included his father and uncle. But unlike Haygood’s book, nothing is said of Davis’ increasingly desperate attempts to break away from his father’s control.

Director Pollard has divided his film into segments ranging from “Patriot” to “Activist” to “Leading Man.” But there’s also ample room for showcasing the subject’s prodigious skills as a dancer, singer and the first black artist to do impressions of white performers such as Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart.

In February of 1990, shortly before his death, Davis’ 60 years in show business were commemorated in a three-hour ABC special that attracted the biggest gathering of show business legends before or since. Gotta Be Me thankfully includes Michael Jackson’s song in his honor (“You were there before we came. You took the hurt, you took the shame”) and Davis’ show-stopping tap dance square-off with the late Gregory Hines.

Sammy Davis Jr. died on May 16, 1990 at the age of 64. In this view, his enormous talent and under-appreciated trailblazing far overshadow his missteps in pursuit of fame, fortune and above all, acceptance.

“I have no desire to be the boy next door,” he once said of his extravagant spending and audacious wardrobe. The man who shocked Archie Bunker with a smooch on the cheek during the most famous episode of All In the Family deserves to be remembered in full for enduring, surviving and in many ways, conquering. Gotta Be Me re-sets his table. It’s about time, but certainly not nearly enough.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Waylaying guilt trips in Fox's Proven Innocent

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What condition’s my conviction in? Kelsey Grammer (far right) doesn’t much like the answers in Proven Innocent. Fox photo


Premiering: Friday, Feb. 15th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Rachelle Lefevre, Kelsey Grammer, Russell Hornsby, Vincent Kartheiser, Nikki M. James, Riley Smith, Clare O’Connor
Produced by: Danny Strong, David Elliot, Stacy Greenberg, Adam Armus

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The benign egotism of Frasier Crane made Kelsey Grammer a TV superstar -- and he’s lately confirming that a reboot is getting closer to being a reality.

But in the interim, a trio of quickly canceled sitcom followups -- Back to You, Hank, Partners -- has prompted Grammer to strut into the dramatic roles of Chicago-based villains. Starz’s Boss, which ran for two seasons, starred Grammer as corrupt Windy City mayor Tom Kane. Fox’s Proven Innocent, which premieres on Friday, Feb. 15th, finds Grammer embracing the role of vainglorious Chicago prosecutor Gore Bellows, who had the milder first name of Cole before Brian d’Arcy James was replaced in the role.

The boo-hiss parameters are set up early in the first episode. Madeline “Maddy” Scott (Rachelle Lefevre), exonerated after spending 10 years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit, is now intent on disgracing the man who sent her there -- which of course is Gore.

“Are you sure you want to poke the bear?” asks her partner, Ezekiel “Easy” Boudreau (Russell Hornsby).

“No. I want to rip his heart out,” Maddy retorts. By the way, Gore has just announced his candidacy for state attorney general.

Maddy and Easy lately run the Injustice Defense Group with help from communications director Violet Price (Nikki M. James) and investigator Bodie Quick (Vincent Kartheiser from Mad Men). Violet also hosts a true-crime podcast, Until Proven Innocent, that documents the firm’s adventures.

Fox made the first and fourth hours available for review. In each of them, Maddy and company go to bat for a convicted murderer that the ruthless Gore happily put on ice. The first is a black woman accused of killing her child. And in Episode 4, Maddy represents a Muslim woman who’s been behind bars for depositing her newly born baby in a trash can. “The man is a monster,” says Client No. 1. OK, got it.

Proven Innocent’s overriding story line also has Maddy searching for the real murderer of her high school friend, Rosemary Lynch. Maddy’s troubled brother, Levi (Riley Smith), likewise was implicated and later exonerated. He’s been coaching a youth soccer team, but his sister’s return to headline-making is not working out well for him.

Grammer plays his part with an affixed sneer, save for when Maddy is vanquishing him in court with evidence that was ignored or suppressed at the time. This doesn’t deter his non-stop plotting and scheming. Looking for a favor in Episode 4, Gore butters up the “greatest legal journalist of our time,” who’s obviously a mockup of notorious Nancy Grace. “Keep kissing. My ass loves it,” she replies a few beats before the married Gore is smooching her.

Kartheiser, who’s taking what he can get these days, has grown a beard for the role of the rather zany Bodie. The role is somewhat fleshed out in Episode 4, but it’s still not much to speak of.

Lefevre, who co-starred in CBS’ summertime Under the Dome series, has some crackle as the head protagonist in Proven Innocent. Away from the courtroom, her personal life, both in flashbacks and present-day, is slowly peeled away. This includes a somewhat unexpected scene at the close of Episode 4.

Proven Innocent also can be transparently heavy-handed in its political leanings. This is particularly evident when a white male pro-life judge strong-arms the featured trial in Episode 4. Then, when things don’t go as planned, he snaps at the “little lady” opposing Maddy.

The series also risks making something of a hapless Hamilton Burger of Gore. Those of a certain vintage will remember him as the prosecutor who always lost to Perry Mason in the long-running TV series. Ditto so far In Proven Innocent, where wronged women are on a #MeToo roll while Gore the Neanderthal keeps getting his just desserts.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

What in God's name was TBS thinking with Miracle Workers?

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God’s on the right, in the form of Steve Buscemi. TBS photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 12th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on TBS
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Daniel Radcliffe, Geraldine Viswanathan, Karan Sonj, Jon Bass, Sasha Compere, Lolly Adefope
Produced by: Lorne Michaels, Andrew Singer, Simon Rich, Daniel Radcliffe, Steve Buscemi

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
As sitcom Gods go, Steve Buscemi’s may be the most irreverent ever.

He replaced the originally cast Owen Wilson in TBS’ seven-episode Miracle Workers, which is adapted from the novel What in God’s Name but also can be seen as TBS’ answer to NBC’s The Good Place. Not that there’s any halo effect.

Wilson perhaps balked at playing a lazily dimwitted and vindictive God who in Episode 2 orders the demolition of Bill Maher’s penis before spending much of Episode 3 battling the runs. I hope these aren’t considered spoilers.

TBS made all seven episodes available for review. It wasn’t quite hell on Earth watching them. But with Buscemi and Daniel Radcliff of Harry Potter fame in the cast, and Lorne Michaels producing, more was expected than occasional amusements amid a multitude of misfires. Sophomoric humor doesn’t violate any of the Ten Commandments per se. Even so, squandering talent at the very least is a no-no.

Radcliffe plays the well-meaning Craig, who’s been toiling alone in Heaven, Inc’s Department of Unanswered Prayers. Those prayers deemed “impossible” are no longer applicable. Craig instead devotes himself to menial, achievable tasks such as helping an earthling find her keys. But an impatient God yearns to call the whole thing off, vowing to blow up his creation rather than deal with all of Earth’s imperfections and neediness.

Well, we can’t have that -- at least not without a fight. So new arrival Eliza (the series’ best performance by Geraldine Viswanathan) makes a bet with God after lobbying for a position in the Department of Unanswered Prayers. He agrees to give Earth a two-week reprieve while Eliza and Craig strive to answer an impossible prayer. In one of the series’ handful of good lines, they immediately discard a request to “Please make everyone just chill out on Twitter.”

Eliza and Craig instead strive to make dweebish earthlings Sam (Jon Bass) and Laura (Sasha Compere) fall in love before God figuratively pushes the button. The rest of Miracle Workers is spent on this main objective and a series of weekly subplots -- including Maher’s seriously endangered penis. (He’s seen only in archival clips.)

God’s overall obsession otherwise is the development of a Lazy Susans restaurant that’s just too much trouble to explain further. Buscemi gives all of this a game go, but his God is basically an unfunny misfit idiot with an unchecked mean streak. TBS perhaps hopes to reap a little extra publicity via denunciations from pulpits or The 700 Club. Hey preachers, it’s probably not worth the bother.

The Miracle Workers cast is rounded out by God’s two put-upon assistants, Sanjay and Rosie (Karan Soni, Lolly Adefope). Producer Michaels also has provided guest shots for a pair of former Saturday Night Live inevitabilities, Tim Meadows and Chris Parnell.

It all ends predictably -- and flatly. A grin or two may intrude amid all the bountiful bad taste. It’s certainly not enough, though, to redeem a series that false starts and then keeps stumbling. Full of grace it’s not.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

American Soul shifts BET into scripted storytelling mode

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Don Cornelius runs the show in American Soul. BET photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 5th at 8 p.m. (central) on BET
Starring: Sinqua Walls, Iantha Richardson, Christopher Jefferson, Katlyn Nichol, Jelani Winston, Kelly Price, Jason Dirden, Kelly Rowland, Shannon Kane, Perri Camper, James Devoti
Produced by: Jonathan Prince, Jesse Collins, Devon Greggory, Tony Cornelius

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Black Entertainment Television, longhand for BET, had its own Don Cornelius in Robert Johnson, who launched the network with his wife, Sheila, in 1980 and sold it to Viacom 20 years later for a reported $3 billion.

But while Johnson profited immensely (and stayed on as CEO until 2006), BET remained stagnant creatively as a home for cut-rate unscripted programming and videos that were criticized by some for perpetuating African-American stereotypes. The network stayed away from costlier scripted comedies and dramas throughout most of Johnson’s reign. But BET’s latest president, Scott Mills, is making a big scripted push after the network’s Being Mary Jane, starring Gabrielle Union, had a four-season run and record-setting ratings.

Mills is promising a veritable onslaught of scripted programming this year, with a commitment to premiere five original new series, according to The Hollywood Reporter. First in line is American Soul, a 10-episode drama series starring Sinqua Walls as Cornelius, the founding father of Soul Train.

In Mills’ view, BET’s audience yearns for “high-end drama content” while at the same time “enjoying salacious reality programming.” But, as he told the Hollywood Reporter, the network’s viewers “have been clear to us that they don’t want to see real-life African-Americans behaving badly on BET. Our audience values that, they just don’t want it in our house.”

If actually true, it’s an interesting dichotomy. And based on the first two episodes of American Soul, BET is arguably having it both ways. One of the promotional tag lines for the series -- “Black folks as black folks was meant to be seen -- strong, powerful and beautiful” -- is also stated by Walls’ Cornelius in an Episode 1 scene with Gladys Knight (fine work by Kelly Rowland).

But Cornelius also is shown behaving quite badly, whether it’s philandering, snorting coke, bullying underlings, providing prostitutes as part of doing business, or putting a gun to his head in American Soul’s opening scene before the drama flashes back from early 2012 to Chicago’s summer of 1971. In short, he was a businessman -- by any means necessary. But his dream of a black-owned-and-operated answer to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand required a single-minded toughness and/or amorality, which Cornelius deployed when needed. (His son, Tony Cornelius, is a co-executive producer of American Soul. So this portrayal has his blessing.)

Upcoming episodes will include portrayals of real-life star performers ranging from Diana Ross to Ike and Tina Turner. But the principal aspiring group in the early going is fictional. Brother and sister Kendall and Simone Clark (Jelani Winston, Katlyn Nichol), and their friend JT Tucker (Christopher Jefferson) comprise Encore, a stand-in for The Undisputed Truth. They were a one-hit wonder group, but it was a big one -- “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” Encore winningly performs it at a club, but the kids are found to be too young to work where alcohol is served. Simone and Kendall then resort to auditioning as Soul Train dancers while JT finds himself getting into trouble.

The supporting cast also includes Iantha Richardson as Soul Train’s put-upon dance auditioner, Tessa Lorraine, Perri Camper in the role of Cornelius’ left behind wife, Delores, and Jason Dirden as ruthless black club manager Gerald Aims, who provides Cornelius with a gateway to Knight. Sprinkled in during the first two episodes are Knight’s strong-willed manager, Ilsa Dejarnette (Shannon Kane), and white go-between Brooks Donald (James Devoti), who’s needed to line up advertisers. One of them refers to Soul Train as “Bandstand for coloreds.”

The scenes from the set of Soul Train are well-captured and choreographed. But BET’s still limited production budgets are reflected in recurrent Vietnam War sequences involving the Clark kids’ father. They’re phony-looking to say the least, and really not needed at all.

Walls, formerly of Starz’s Power series, is effective as Cornelius, although not to the point of blowing anyone away. His best scene is talking business to the reluctant Knight at a Gary, Indiana club. But American Soul also tends to bounce like a ping-pong ball from one set piece to another. The worst of this is when Cornelius is stopped by a taunting, white Los Angeles police officer for allegedly running a stop sign. “Sing for me,” he’s ordered, or be taken downtown. But the slobbering cop and his partner then get a call to a higher priority crime scene, which spares Cornelius any further indignities. It’s all very ham-handed.

BET is moving in the right direction, though. The network had been running in place for decades under the profit-mongering Johnson. American Soul is a significant effort to get untracked and make a mark. Dramatizing how Soul Train came to be is a story well worth telling. And BET at long last has deemed itself the perfect place to do it.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net