Brian Malgieri, Allison Tober, Nina Avallone-Serra, Kevin Malone, Heirut Miller, Caitlin Crowe, Amber Ellis
Lilies of the Field is a 1963 film starring Sidney Poitier as Homer Smith, a down on his luck handyman. The movie starts with Homer’s car breaking down on the property of German-Austrian-Hungarian Catholic nuns in Tucson, Arizona. Mother Maria and Sisters Gertrude, Agnes, Albertine, and Elizabeth saw Homer as a gift sent from God intended to continue the work in their town, including building a chapel. One of the main conflicts of the film is Homer’s expectations of compensation for his services and the nuns’ lack of funds. Even after realizing he will not be paid, Homer consistently, though reluctantly, helps out the nuns with their chores and the construction of the chapel. As he spends more time with them, Homer begins to form a connection with the nuns through educating them on the English language. As the movie begins to draw to an end, Homer begins to solely work on the chapel, initially refusing help from the townspeople. Ultimately, he ends up setting aside his ego and accepting their help. The chapel and its construction brought everyone together, and the film’s final scene displays the word “Amen”.
Throughout the film, many different thematic points are demonstrated. The main theme portrayed is the idea of people from different cultures and ideologies coming together for the betterment of each other as a whole. Each set of characters are derived from their own unique identities. Catholics and Baptists, English, Spanish, and German speakers, German immigrants, Mexican Americans, white and black men and women were all living within the same town. Homer and Mother Maria both had pride in their cultures and ideologies, but it wasn’t until they set them aside and worked together, along with the town, that the chapel was able to be built. This theme is solidified in the closing scene in which the Catholic Nuns enthusiastically joined Homer in singing a Baptist Hymn with the movie closing with “Amen” to represent the solemn gratification and agreement between the two parties, a meaning of “amen” as defined by dictionary.com. Themes involving identity and religion are the most prominent in the film and can be seen in I am Not Sidney Poitier.
In I am Not Sidney Poitier, Percival Everett encompasses multiple Sidney Poitier movie plots, including Lilies of the Field. Not Sidney experiences a similar situation to that of Homer Smith, the difference being that he does not contribute to any physical work and instead donates a large amount of money to the nuns for construction of the chapel. The chapel ultimately goes unfinished in the end as Sister Irenaeus and Thornton Scrunchy try to flee with the money. The names of the nuns from the movies also undergo a change within the book, and Percival Everett uses the nuns to make specific references to various religious and philosophical figures of the 3rd century. On page 171, we are introduced to the nuns with the line, “She finally introduced herself as Sister Irenaeus. She introduced the others as Sisters Origen, Eusebius, Firmilian, and Chrysotom.” Why would he change these names? In the movie, other than Mother Maria, the sisters are essentially one mass background character. They aren’t individually developed characters and can all be referred to interchangeably. The fact that he decided to change them must have some meaning to it. This implies that one should also question any other artistic decision made throughout the book.
According to wikipedia.com, these names all correspond with various Saints, Bishops, and scholarly figures who bore similar ideas surrounding an ideal quality of life, stressing the importance of faith and an acceptance of a humble lifestyle. They also had the similar goal of not only nurturing their faith, but also taking part in spreading it. Mother Maria’s corresponding character in the text is Sister Irenaeus, a name that means peace, according to Wikipedia. This change presents an ironic twist to Mother Maria’s character in the film, as she acts bitterly toward the fellow sisters and Homer.
With an interesting play on names throughout the movie and the book, Percival Everett is able to put interpretations of the characters beneath the real name. For example, in I Am Not Sidney Poitier, when Not Sidney meets his girlfriend Maggie’s family for the first time, he ends up sleeping with Maggie’s sister, Agnes, creating an ironic contrast with the name’s meaning, which according to a site called Behind the Name, means “chaste” or “pure”. Agnes was the one that went up to Not Sidney and told him she wanted to have sex with him in the first place. Everett’s intentional play on name meanings skew other interpretations by characterizing those in the book and movie as the opposite of what we, the readers, interpret them to be.
While it may never be known why Percival Everett decided to change the nuns’ names, it is clear how this decision resembles the overarching theme of the novel: identity. Not Sidney Poitier struggles with his identity throughout the entirety of the novel. He is constantly compared to and seen as the actor Sidney Poitier, and Everett pushes this struggle further by forcing Not Sidney to live out altered versions of Sidney Poitier movie plots, including but not limited to: The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and No Way Out. In a reference to the latter film, Not Sidney has a dream in which he is a doctor who experiences racist remarks from a white man when his patient dies, blaming the death on him. This implies another identity crisis about who Not Sidney is, who he desires to be, and who other people think he is. As Kevin pointed out in our group conversation, the nuns in the book would not exist without the Lilies of the Field movie, therefore their identity is dependent on the film. This remains true for the protagonist, for Not Sidney’s journey would have no relevance without the background of the classic Sidney Poitier movies. His name being the negation of Sidney Poitier would have no importance.
It is noteworthy to mention along with the changing of these names that character’s themselves also struggled with remembering the names of the Sisters. On page 184, Diana, an employee of the diner, states in conversation Homer “Yeah whatever. And that’s another thing, who the hell can say those names, much less remember them? There’s Oxygen and Firmament and then the others?” This quote develops the idea that while the change of the names was a deliberate choice, there really isn’t any meaning behind it. After all, if the characters within the novel don’t think the names are worth remembering, why should it matter to us? The thing that should matter to us is how we process the information. We could simply read the names, assume that they’re something religious, and move on. We could even choose not to think about their names at all and keep reading because they don’t affect the narrative. However, because we researched the names and unpacked as much meaning as we possibly could, we found ourselves thinkING and learnING. The names are just nonsense used to drive our thinking, nothing more than words that originally hold no surface level meaning without thought.
Through our group discussions, we’ve come to realize that this concept ties back to our involvement in Dr. McCoy’s ENGL 203 course. Many of the works we’ve studied this semester can be arguably defined as nonsensical, as The Bacchae, Frenzy, and I Am Not Sidney Poitier, have brought us all confusion when read in a new critical manner. According to The Bedford, New Criticism is defined as “a type of formalist literary criticism characterized by close textual analysis.” However, after taking the time to step back and probe deeper, we’ve been able to make meaningful connections out of this alleged nonsense. These connections occur when viewing the texts in a new historical manner, which the Bedford defines as how “literary works both influence and are influenced by historical reality, and they share a belief in referentiality, that is, a belief that literature both refers to and is referred to by things outside itself.” The meanings we find are arbitrary; it’s the process of finding the meaning that is most valuable. To look past the text itself and interpret why the text was written gives the reader a further connection to the text. Although ultimately, this final interpretation’s value is less than the attempt of interpretation itself. Real value comes from questioning and trying to understand rather than the answers you find as true understanding is impossible to achieve. The only way one could achieve true understanding is to limit themselves to their initial isolated interpretation. Consequently, as soon as it is shared it loses its value as true understanding because it opens the possibility of an alternative understanding. This cross contamination between New Criticism and New Historicism is where the value of nonsense resides.
Conversation amongst the group has been the catalyst to uncovering the value of nonsense. Our understanding of Percival Everett’s artistic decisions as an author changed with every discussion. The incorporation of nonsense in I am Not Sidney Poitier, including the changing of the nuns’ names, creates a theme of an ongoing pursuit of understanding through collaboration and intertextual discovery.