Amr Salama, Sammy Davis Jr: I Gotta Be Me, Samuel Pollard, Sheikh Jackson, Toronto International Film Festival
Stars so far away and so bright, we only glimpse after-images of them, when in fact they have been gone for a long time. Gone but not forgotten.
That’s what Day Seven reminded me of, as it drew to close. Two films, about two one of a kind entertainers, bookended my viewings.
The morning kicked off with Sheikh Jackson from Amr Salama (Excuse My French), a Saudi Arabian filmmaker whose TIFF entry has been tapped as Egypt’s Best Foreign Language Film nominee for the upcoming Academy Awards. Jackson reveals the story of an imam undergoing a severe crisis of faith, triggered by the news of the death of Michael Jackson, a pivotal figure for him as a young man. It should come as no surprise that MJ inspired people all over the world, but it is still startling to see his impact on this character.
Seen in flashbacks, before immersing himself in religion, the imam was simply a teenager dealing with standard coming-of-age issues – an overbearing father, a beloved mother on the verge of succumbing to a terminal illness, and his infatuation with a musically-gifted schoolmate. The boy is eager to impress everyone, but does’t quite know who he is, let alone the type of man he will become.
He turns to MJ to impress the girl, but remains faithful to the spirit of the entertainer, the purity of his music and movement. It allows the young man to submit to the passions of the world and be moved by them, moved to tears.
When, MJ dies, the imam, now older and married with a daughter of his own and a community that follows him and appreciates his tearful prayers, finds himself caught in an emotional and spiritual drought. He retreats, step-by-step, back into his memories, many quite painful, but MJ’s presence guides him.
Sheikh Jackson starts off like a nostalgic ball of fire, with a loving sentimentality constantly on the verge of drowning in saccharine, but somehow finds a way to keep from tripping into this sweet and sticky pool. The film promises a tribute to MJ and it delivers, although it knows enough to please us with the perfect tease. It is as pure as any instinctively executed MJ dance move or hiccuped vocal accent.
On the back end, I joined a packed public screening of Samuel Pollard’s documentary Sammy Davis Jr: I Gotta Be Me, which, besides covering the full breadth of Davis’s boundless talent and energy, offers a choice nod to MJ as well. At a tribute to Davis, we see MJ sing, just sing mind you, and in every note, we feel the electric current running between MJ and Davis. These two men, joined by a love and genius for song and dance, provided echoes of one another.
The documentary shows Davis to be such a special being, more than one of a kind when you take into account his infinite abilities and the trying times he experienced. Singer. Dancer. Musician. Stand-up comic. Actor. Activist. Soldier. Survivor. Take a careful look at that list. We tend to elevate folks for being more than competent and deserving of one of those labels. Check two off and you’re a genius.
So where does that leave Sammy Davis Jr.?
I would hope that the hip hop generation, the kids of the 1990s, and the millennials might take a seat for this film when it opens and come to appreciate where much of the joy and passion for the creative gifts they so enjoy came from. The man had a bottomless love for performance, big appetites, and even larger dreams for all of us. Not all of them came true, but we should never forget that he tried. Pollard shows how hard it was and how effortless he sometimes made it seem.