Copy That

In the novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, by Percival Everett, Not Sidney experiences many of the same events as the real Sidney Poitier did in his movies. I am confident that this is done purposefully by Everett to produce both a comical and satirical effect. However, there is little difference between what Everett writes in his book and what happens in the movies. Everett takes dialogue, plotlines, and characters directly from the films, sometimes even word-for-word. This seems to be a clear-cut example of plagiarism. After many English lessons about the horrors of plagiarism, I can’t help but speculate about the ethicality of Everett’s actions. I’ve decided to utilize some of my class resources to assess what qualifies as plagiarism and compare what I find to the book.

In a past English 203 class, Dr. McCoy gave us access to the Milne Library Plagiarism Tutorial. This online course allowed the class to refresh what we already know, and possibly learn something new, about plagiarism. While reading the section on paraphrasing, I realized quickly that “I Am Not Sidney Poitier” is full of it. Paraphrasing, according to the course, is when a writer uses another person’s ideas or work and puts it into his or her own words. Everett does this by using Sidney Poitier’s film plots, with a few modifications, to enhance the satirical nature of his book.

Both the movie and the novel start the same with a bus full of inmates and either Sidney or Not Sidney’s “right wrist shackled to a white man’s left.” In the movie, Poitier’s character is joined to a man he nick-names Joker. Everett adjusts this to Not Sidney being shackled to Patrice instead. He also divereges from the movie’s ending where the men form a bond that results in their capture, to Not Sidney leaving Patrice with the young woman and boy they stayed with the night before. This allows Not Sidney to escape and continue on with his own narrative.

These adaptations may separate Everett’s version from the original, however, Everett still copies other parts from the film in great detail. This is evident in the scene where the two men must help each other across a river. In the film, Joker responds to Sidney Poitier’s thank you after they survive the river with “Man I didn’t pull you out, I kept you from pulling me in.” This is almost verbatim to Patrice when talking with Not Sidney after the same event, “She-it, I ain’t pulled you out. I kept your ass from pullin’ me in.”

 The Milne Library Plagiarism course emphasizes that if paraphrasing like this is done without citation, it is considered plagiarism. Everett certainly doesn’t cite the Defiant Ones in his book. The question is, has Everett changed the plot and the plot’s meaning enough for the novel to not be considered plagiarism?  

To better understand this question, I will return to an earlier class discussion about Theseus’ Ship. The Ship of Theseus is a paradoxical situation that scholars still debate today. It begins with the original Ship of Theseus being placed in a museum. As time goes on, the initial wood begins to rot and is replaced by new wood. Once all of the wood is replaced, is it still the same ship as before? Because it is a paradox, there is no one right answer. I might argue that it is the same ship, as it has the same purpose as before. Yet, someone else who is thinking more literally might claim that since it is made from different materials, it cannot be the same ship. Thus, is the fundamental argument of plagiarism in art and literature. If an author uses another person’s work for inspiration, is that plagiarism? And if not, how much of the original work can the author use before it is?

Everett largely uses parts of the Defiant Ones in his novel. Although he changes some aspects, one could still argue that he plagiarized. Everett makes references to other various Sidney Poitier films through out the novel as well, one being Lilies of the Field. We watched this comedy about five nuns acquiring a young, black man, Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier’s character) to help build them a chapel, in class. Not Sidney also happens upon five nuns in the novel, but instead of building them a chapel, he offers them $50,000 of his own wealth. This would be an obvious reference to anyone who has seen the film, Lilies of the Field, but what about those who haven’t?

I now want to look to the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms definition of allusion. According to the Bedford, allusion is any indirect reference to “a person, event, statement, theme, or work.” The author’s use of this is often assuming that the reader will understand the reference. In other words, the reference is considered common knowledge. I think that Everett’s use of Lilies in the Field could be considered an allusion. But whether or not the reference is common knowledge isn’t quite as clear. I know that I personally wouldn’t have understood the reference if we hadn’t watched the movie in class. The film was released almost sixty years ago in 1963. So, while it might be a classic for an older generation, it is probably not as well-known by younger readers. If the allusion made by Everett isn’t realized by the reader, Everett becomes dangerously close to committing plagiarism.

After analyzing parts of Everett’s text and studying some class resources, I have decided that one could argue that Everett’s work in this novel is definitly plagiarism. I cannot say for certain if it is because I am not qualified to make that claim. What plagiarism is or isn’t is such a fine line with literature that it is like Theseus’ Ship. There are many right answers and no one indefinite one.

In my opinion, Everett’s depiction of Not Sidney’s life as a young, black man in American is well worth his risk of plagiarizing. At first, when I read the parts of the book that almost completely copied the movies, I was confused. I thought that the replication of the plots was unethical and unnecessary to the plot. After further consideration, I have realized that Everett does this purposefully to provide a commentary on the types of roles Sidney Poitier played throughout his career compared to Not Sidney. From the films I have seen, Sidney Poitier often plays a good person who is put in a bad situation. He is usually at the mercy of the people around him and is discriminated against because of his skin color. He is persecuted against and called derogatory names. These films took place in a much older America, but I think perhaps Everett is trying to say that discrimination of black people is still rampant today. Everett uses the plot lines to further depict Not Sidney as someone who is also judged for the color of his skin. Even though Not Sidney is different than Sidney Poitier’s characters, he still experiences the same circumstances being a black man.

Everett teeters on the line of plagiarism in his book I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Nonetheless, he does so to create a social and political narrative about black people in America. The funny and ironic novel uses the plot lines of past Sidney Poitier films to bring attention to the inequities faced by black people today.

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