Dancer, singer, musician, patriot, activist, rebel and survivor—Sammy Davis, Jr. did it all. He was a one-of-a-kind entertainer who broke through many barriers, using his talent to fight bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism. But despite his fame and fortune, he struggled for acceptance in the black community.

In American Masters: Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, see how this Hollywood legend fought the odds throughout his life and achieved greatness doing it his own way. WGBH is proud to celebrate Black History Month by airing this first major documentary dedicated to examining Davis’ artistry and his search for identity amid the unfolding civil rights movement in 20th century America.

Born in Harlem in 1925, Davis won his first talent contest at the age of three. He never attended school, spending his early years as a child performer. Throughout his life, he yearned for acceptance, but instead he faced discrimination as a soldier, a comedian and even as a leading man on Broadway. Each experience changed his life in a different way.

Director Sam Pollard, who began his career as a producer of Eyes on the Prize II, a series presented on WGBH, said the most important aspect of the film is Davis’ own commentary. “He was always probing and questioning his own behavior: how he interacted with people and how they responded to him as both an entertainer and a man of color,” he said.

Sammy Davis, Jr.

The documentary begins with footage from a defining moment in Davis’ life—a campaign youth rally for Richard Nixon in August 1972 where the performer hugged the president on stage. That one gesture, caught on camera and reproduced everywhere from The New York Times to JET magazine, was seen as a betrayal by many in the black community.

Two weeks later, when Davis was invited to appear at the Operation PUSH Black Expo in Chicago, the entertainer was booed repeatedly by those in the audience who thought he was a sell-out. Davis acknowledged the angst he felt, caught between two worlds. “Anytime you walk down the street, in a given period in your life, and your own people will not speak to you, and your own people turn you away, then all the money, the diamonds, the fame, the fortune mean absolutely nothing,” he said.

Davis’ life was a swirl of highs and lows. A prominent member of the Las Vegas “Rat Pack,” he lost an eye in a car accident but went on to star on Broadway. Even though President Kennedy personally uninvited him to the 1961 inaugural ball because he didn’t want Davis’ interracial marriage to alienate Southern Democrats, the entertainer eventually became the first black man to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom when Nixon extended the invitation. He was a recipient of multiple Kennedy Center Honors but died deeply in debt to the Internal Revenue Service. And he did it all with an ostentatious sense of style.

“The best way to tell this story was always to cut to Sammy,” said writer Laurence Maslon. “His presence speaks volumes, and his artistry is enthralling. After 20 seconds of watching him, no one could dispute that he was an American Master.”

American Masters: Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me airs on Tuesday, February 19, at 9 pm on WGBH 2. Watch a preview below: