Plagiarism with Purpose

Recently in class, Professor McCoy had us take Milne Library’s Plagiarism Tutorial. This course served to teach us about the different types, and extent of plagiarism. It also provided us a better understanding of how to protect ourselves as writers. The tutorial defined plagiarism as “using the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own, and without giving proper credit to the sources you have used.” It stated that any reference to facts, ideas, or data that are not considered common knowledge must be properly cited. As we worked through this tutorial Professor McCoy pointed out the irony that students are cautioned against plagiarism even though many writers are guilty of using the ideas of others without citing them. Students can get into serious trouble for not crediting their sources properly whereas authors, including Percival Everett receive no penalty. As I worked with my group to finish up the tutorial I began to wonder if Percival Everett was guilty of plagiarism.

 Throughout his novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier Everett borrows plot lines from multiple films starring the actor Sidney Poitier. In class we watched the movie The Defiant Ones which is about two convicts Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) and John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) who are chained to each other and work together to escape the police. In Everett’s book, Not Sidney faces a similar situation where he is convicted of a crime and chained to a white convict Patrice. In the movie, Cullen and Joker must cross a river together but are pulled away by the strong current. Joker is able to grab onto the bank and pull Cullen to safety. Not Sidney and Patrice face the same situation with a fast-moving river. They are pulled downstream, but Patrice grabs the bank and pulls them to safety. In both the book and movie, the dialogue is nearly identical. When both Cullen and Not Sidney express gratitude for being pulled out of the water. The response in is “I didn’t pull you out. I kept you from pulling me in.” This scene in the book is nearly identical to the scene in the movie however, Everett provides no citation or credit to The Defiant Ones.

            As our group worked through the plagiarism tutorial I asked if perhaps the scene from the Defiant Ones was plagiarized. One of my groupmates, Amanda, mentioned that Everett was making an allusion to the film. According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross M. Murfin and Supryia M. Ray an allusion is “an indirect reference, often to a person, event, statement, theme or work. Allusions enrich meaning through the connotations they carry.” I then used The Bedford to find connotation defined as “the association(s) evoked by a word beyond it’s denotation, literal meaning.” My question then became, why is Everett alluding to this film in his novel and what association is The Defiant Ones meant to evoke.

This question reminded me of a conversation I had with a small group after we had finished the movie a few weeks earlier. One of the members of my group Kevin had stated that he was struggling to find his “footholds” in how to interpret the relationship between the movie and the book. Of course, Dr. McCoy pointed out the irony of Kevin’s use of the word “footholds” because in both the film and novel the characters struggle out of a clay pit because there are no footholds.  I remember during this conversation I shared Kevin’s frustration because I also could not recognize what Everett was doing.

I realized that previously when I was comparing the two works, I only identified the aspects that were the same. Focusing on Everett’s use of the film as an allusion, like Amanda suggested, gave the parts that I had originally viewed as plagiarism more purpose. Ultimately the end of the Defiant Ones results in Cullen and Joker attempting to board a train together. When Cullen realizes that Joker will not be able to make it with him, he jumps off and the two men face their fate together. In I am Not Sidney Poitier, Patrice and Not Sidney arrive at the train tracks together. However, Not Sidney escapes on the train while Patrice sleeps drunkenly next to the tracks. Everett makes the choice to deviate from the original film version which gives purpose to his allusion.

In class we identified The Defiant Ones as a popular style of  movie in the 50’s known as the “buddy film.” According to the film glossary, a buddy film is when “two mismatched persons (usually males) are forced to work together; situations are often contrived to present the pair with challenges or strains that strengthen their bond and weaken it.” The movies depiction of Cullen and the Joker’s relationship matches the definition of a buddy film dynamic. The two must work together to overcome their differences and develop a close bond where they remain as a team to the very end. The relationship between Patrice and Not Sidney does not follow the character arch of a buddy film. The two never seem to bond or fully overcome their difference. In the end Not Sidney leaves Patrice behind with no regret.

In group discussion we classified I am Not Sidney Poitier as a satire. According to The Bedford this means it is “a literary genre that uses irony, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to expose humanity’s vices and foibles. Through clever criticism, satirists debunk and deflate their targets.” I believe that Everett’s purpose for alluding to The Defiant Ones is to debunk the idea that the “buddy film” exists in reality. By choosing to have Not Sidney leave Patrice behind Everett is making a statement through the novel. Not Sidney does not need any help to make it out on his own. Therefore, although Everett’s lack of citation would make his use of The Defiant Ones plagiarism. His allusion serves a purpose to debunk the “buddy film” idea and adds strength to Not Sidney’s character.

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