Collaborated by: Leila Sassouni, Julia Yakowyna, Anthony Guttilla, Amanda Neri, and Lauren Silverman
Sidney Poitier’s 1963 film Lilies of the Field, draws on the relationship between five nuns and the main protagonist, Homer Smith, played by Sidney Poitier. While driving through an isolated town in Arizona, Smith comes across a small house, inhabited by nuns from Germany. These nuns are impoverished yet express a deep faith in God. Specifically, they pray for God to send them someone to build them a chapel, and when Smith shows up, they claim that God sent him. They eventually convince Smith to build them a chapel. Everett’s goal in changing the names of the characters from the movie to the novel is to show the impact that names and money have on power dynamics.
Similarly, in Percival Everett’s novel I am Not Sidney Poitier, Not Sidney encounters five nuns as he drives through Alabama. The situation he is put in mirrors the situation of the protagonist Homer Smith from the film. In both the film and the novel, Homer Smith, and his parallel of Not Sidney, is coerced into helping these women. However, instead of building the chapel himself, he urges the women to find an architect who could build the chapel, with his money.
Everett juxtaposes the mundane names of the nuns in Lilies of the Field by changing them to those of saints of the Catholic Church in his novel. The names in the film have typical German names such as: Maria, Agnes, Gertrude, Albertine, and Elizabeth. Each of these names; however, finds a replacement in Everett’s novel with those of male saints. In identifying these women with masculine saints’ names, the names in the novel are changed to: Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Firmilian, and Chrysotom. Each of these names is one of either an early bishop and saint, heading the Church between the early second and early fifth centuries.
Each of the saints chosen by Everett was a recognized Christian author, historian, or scholar, all academics except for Irenaeus, who was known for his role in guiding and expanding Christian communities (Britannica). Aside from Irenaeus, all of them were scholars during a time when women were excluded from holding the same field or title. Saint Irenaeus was well known for his role in guiding and expanding Christian communities in Southern France (Britannica). Saint Chrysostom was a well-recognized Christian author, who was exiled from Constantinople because of his connections to Arianism (Wikipedia); Arianism means denying Christ’s divinity. Saint Eusebius was a historian of Christianity in Palestine (Franciscan Media). Saint Origen was an early Christian scholar, ascetic, theologian (Wikipedia). Saint Firmilian was a disciple of Origen (Wikipedia).
Each of these Saints held a significant amount of power in the Christian church. Everett changing the nuns names’ to these names gives them all more power in the novel. However, this is ironic because he gives them these powerful names which are only powerful because they originate from these Saints. An instance where Everett gives the nuns less power occurs when Not Sidney is sitting in a diner while in Alabama. The diner owner tells Not Sidney, “‘Those poor sisters,’ she said. ‘They come here from Montana or someplace because somebody left some land to their church’” (Everett, 182). Later, one of the customers, who hears Not Sidney discussing the idea of the nuns wanting to build a church, criticizes them as he says “‘Those crazies?’ he said. ‘Gonna build themselves a church. Out of what, is what I want to know,’” (184). By writing the nuns in as delusional, he is mocking them, which in turn takes away from their power. As seen, the nuns in the novel are depicted as poor women who have very limited resources.
In the movie, the nuns are not the most powerful people in the town. While Smith builds the chapel for the nuns, he realizes that he needs more materials in order to complete the building process. However, the nuns’ power is denied because they have no money in the bank to financially support the chapel-project process. Since Smith is building the chapel for the nuns, he essentially loses his own power, because he is constantly bossed around by Mother Maria who tries to exert more power over him than what she has. In order to also put Smith on their level, the nuns give him a new last name, Schmidt. While this may be a more convenient or more German sounding name for the women to pronounce, they basically call him a ‘worker’, undermining his power.
On the other hand, while the nuns in the film appear to care less about their own money and power, the novel illustrates the opposite; the nuns care more about money because it gives them more power. In the novel, Not Sidney offers money to the nuns to build a church since they otherwise do not have the financial stability to support this project. When Not Sidney speaks to Sister Irenaeus, he directly tells her his ideas on the topic, “‘I don’t know how to build a church,’ I told them. ‘However, I have a lot of money.’ I let this sit with them for a moment. ‘And I’m willing to pay for the materials and labor to have it built”’ (187). Through this conversation, Not Sidney exemplifies that because he has the financial ability to build the chapel, that he is essentially the powerful one who can then make decisions about the chapel. This is not only shown with the nuns and the building of the church, but also at the end of the novel. Everett decides to leave this part of the story up to interpretation. Not Sidney witnesses seeing Sidney Poitier’s dead body. Being the man Not Sidney is and appearing similarly to Sidney Poitier, he assumes the life of Sidney Poitier. Sidney Poitier was famous, and no one really knew that he had passed away because of his living doppelganger, Not Sidney. With both his financial status and his powerful name, Not Sidney begins to live Sidney Poitier’s life, as he walks on the red carpet and accepts a prestigious award meant for Sidney Poitier.
Changing the Nuns names’ from common names to names of powerful Saints offers a power shift. Throughout the novel, we are able to see Not Sidney finding power over people through his money. While Not Sidney has his interview with Gladys Feet, he recognizes for the first time in the novel the extent of his advantage in life, “‘I realized that my scads of money gave me a considerable amount of power. A seemingly simple notion, but one that I had either been too stupid to acknowledge or too stubborn to accept’” (83). He realizes that money brings power, which leads him to understand his potential for obtaining more power. Even later, when Sister Irenaeus tries to steal 50,000 dollars from him, he illustrates his personal advantage as he still gives them the money for the chapel.
This entire sequence juxtaposing the film Lilies of the Field and the novel I am Not Sidney Poitier sums up one of the major themes of the novel in this way, as it is a condensed portion of the book that can represent the whole. Being financially stable demonstrates the way that both the chapel project and people’s lives depend so heavily on money. By comparing nuns in the novel versus the nuns in the film, there is a clear difference in power dynamics between both of the sets of nuns. This power dynamic is caused simply because of the change of names, and also the way Everett mocks them.