Sammy Davis Jr. is perhaps better known today as a member of the Rat Pack, whose members included the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. On-screen he was often cast as the wise-cracker, but in real life he worked tirelessly in support of racial equality, often finding himself on the receiving end of threats as a result of his activism.
In A Man Called Adam, Davis pins his politics firmly on his sleeve, as a hard-drinking jazz musician whose life begins to turn around when he meets a straight-talking civil rights activist (Cicely Tyson).
Directed by Leo Penn—father of Sean—A Man Called Adam film features a predominantly black cast in an era when black actors were rarely cast, and even more rarely cast as believable, three-dimensional characters.
Davis does sterling work, adding fire to a film that may, to modern audiences, seem slow and overly ponderous. Louis Armstrong makes a rare acting appearance as Tyson’s grandfather and, as would be expected, he also does the business musically, with dazzling performances of Back O’ Town Blues and All That Jazz.
As a drama, A Man Called Adam is a tough viewing experience. Adam is a good man—and a talented musician—pitted against a system designed to chew him up and spit him out. There are no solutions or happy endings. It’s also film that casts the ‘60s into sharp relief and tells you in no uncertain terms that, no, it wasn’t all peace and free love. For all that, A Man Called Adam is well worth watching, if only to see how far society has changed—and how far it still needs to.
StudioCanal’s new release is fully restored with commentaries from jazz expert, Jumoke Fashola, and film historian Sergio Mims.