Percival Everett parodies the 1958 movie, The Defiant Ones in his 2009 novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Meanwhile, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines parody as: “A form of high burlesque popular since ancient times that comically imitates a specific, generally serious work or the style of an author or genre.” Percival Everett’s interpretation of The Defiant Ones, portrays the ugly face of racism more adeptly than the film, despite containing humorous undertones throughout. An intertextual study between Everett’s novel and Sidney Poitier’s movie provides a clear contrast between the accuracy of the racism in the former, and the lack thereof in the latter. Therefore, intertextuality, as expressed by The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms is: “The condition of interconnectedness among texts, or the concept that any text is an amalgam of others, either because it exhibits signs of influence, or because its language inevitably contains common points of reference with other texts.” In short, a comparison between the racism written in Everett’s novel, and the racism displayed in the 1958 film, emphasizes the importance of intertextuality in expanding pre existing concepts such as race-relations. The relationship between The Defiant Ones, and I Am Not Sidney Poitier, interestingly mimics the relationship between Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, as the latter is an advancement of the ideas proposed in the source material.
The Defiant Ones revolves around the journey of a white man and black man chained together, seeking liberation. They are criminals on the run from the law, and therefore must strategize and work together to overcome various physical and mental obstacles during their rigorous trek across the Southern United States. The film is set during the tension-ridden Civil Rights era in the early-to-mid 20th century, and thus involves a dynamic, initially hostile, relationship between the protagonists. While the budding friendship between them is meant to emphasize the importance of unity and equality, racism is still explicitly expressed throughout the duration of the film. However, the racism exposed in the film is not as impactful as the racism detailed in Everett’s novel. For example, after Jackson (the white man) calls Cullen a particularly offensive word, the former states: “Well, that’s what you are, ain’t it? It’s like callin’ a spade a spade…That name sure bugs you, don’t it? Well, that’s the way it is, and you’re stuck with it, ‘cos I didn’t make any rules.” In this quote, although he is supporting racism, there is a reluctance in Jackson’s diction. The clause “I didn’t make any rules,” suggests that Jackson is expressing a “don’t shoot the messenger” attitude. He is redirecting blame, which insinuates to the audience that perhaps Jackson has guilt regarding his racism. Or perhaps that Jackson is disillusioned with attempting to break social norms; as he is an outcast himself as a criminal, and this provides him with an opportunity to pick himself up from the base of the proverbial social pyramid. Therefore, his racism may be more a facet of self defense and self-preservation than true rooted racism. This is opposed in the novel by Jackson’s equal in Patrice. Dialogue between Not Sidney and the former reads as follows:
“Apparently it’s illegal to be black in Peckerwood County.”
“If it ain’t it outta be.”
Whereas Jackson conveyed some measure of reluctance in his bigotry, Patrice is direct and meaningful. The phrase “it outta be” expresses Patrice’s clear support for Jim Crow laws, and demonstrates that he has little guilt for racism in American society. Moreover, the simplicity of Patrice’s response intimates that perhaps the topic of race is of little importance to him. Although Percival Everett’s piece is a parody of The Defiant Ones, it does not follow the script religiously. In the film, Jackson, the white man, has a sexual encounter with the woman they come across. In the novel however, Not Sidney, the black man, has the sexual encounter. Afterwards, the dialogue is as follows:
“Which one are you?” she asked.
“I’m the black one,” I said.
She spat. “I had me a notion.”
Everett’s decision to diverge from the original script facilitates one’s understanding of true prejudice in the Southern United States. In the film, the spark between Jackson and the woman they meet is passionate and appealing. In the novel, on the other hand, the whole act is condensed into three lines, none of which express any kind of sentiment. It is depicted as more of an obligation for the woman, and one that she regrets upon learning the color of Not Sidney’s skin. Onward, the act of following “I’m the black one,” with “She spat,” communicates to the reader that being black is the equivalent of having semen in one’s mouth. These subtle racist intimations are not present within the film. Although it is true that in the The Defiant Ones, the woman tricks Cullen by directing him into a swamp, but her reason for doing so was not the color of his skin explicitly. Rather, to facilitate her deluded dream of running away with Jackson.
The juxtaposition between the endings of the movie (where Cullen stays behind for Jackson) and the book (where Not Sidney abandons Patrice) emphasizes the harsh reality that Percival Everett desires to convey in his book. Despite the tenderness of the bond formed between Cullen and Jackson by the conclusion of the film, the coldness of Not Sidney’s actions illustrates a better depiction of racial relations in the United States at the time — disconnected.
In conclusion, while The Defiant Ones addresses racism in a manor that was acceptable for the time period, it fails to deliver the message with the rawness that it warrants. Furthermore, the film does make use of racial slurs, but this was commonplace, as film codes of the time do not cite it as a redmark. Everett’s choice to recreate the characters from the film with significantly greater racial gusto, yields scenarios that are more believable than in the 1958 Best Picture Nominee. However, it must be acknowledged that the foundations for those characters were forged in another text entirely, and expanded upon eventually. The differences between the characters highlights the importance of intertextuality to Percival Everett in reforging the depiction of racism in American media.