The tipping Poitier
Percival Everett's absurd new hero must distinguish himself from screen icon Sidney.
Thu May 28 2009
In the ’60s, amid civil unrest and race riots in places such as Watts and Detroit, there was still one black man whom white Americans would almost trust to date their daughter—onscreen, at least. That man was Sidney Poitier, who played Dr. John Wade Prentice in the 1967 interracial-romance film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Author Percival Everett uses the actor as a jumping-off point in his biting and hilarious new novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Here, Everett explores the meaning of Poitier and the reasons that white America found him so unthreatening.
“I was interested in the icon of the palatable black man in the ’60s or ’70s,” Everett, 52, tells TONY from his home in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, novelist-memoirist Danzy Senna. He was drawn to Poitier because he is such a complicated figure—politically outspoken in public, and eminently “safe” onscreen (“Heaven forbid he should actually have sex in a movie,” Everett deadpans). To research the book, the author spent many hours watching old Poitier films. “I knew them so well that I was just tired of them,” he says of the experience. “It was then that I could own them.”
You don’t have to get far in I Am Not Sidney Poitier to realize that Everett has made the subject entirely his own. The book opens in 1968, as a woman, last name Poitier, names her newborn son Not Sidney. Though obviously eccentric, she has the foresight to invest every penny she has in Ted Turner’s nascent media company. So when she dies, the teenage Not Sidney inherits an obscene amount of money. Turner, who over the years has become aware of the nonfamous Poitier family, sees Not Sidney as something of a good-luck charm, despite the linguistic troubles his name causes (“What’s your name?” “Not Sidney.” “I know you’re not Sidney, but what’s your name?”). Turner promptly adopts the orphan and brings him to Atlanta.
At this point, Not Sidney—who already bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Sidney Poitier—embarks on an Odyssean journey that will see him molested by his high-school teacher Miss Hancock, visit with his white girlfriend’s bigoted parents in D.C., and have a run-in with the redneck police department of Smuteye, Alabama, where he helps a group of nuns build their church (and finds himself embroiled in a local murder).
Everett has always displayed a formidable imagination (his novel Glyph concerns hyperintelligent infants), and his absurdist sense of humor has garnered him a reputation as an “experimental” writer. It’s easy to see why the author calls that a “bullshit label”: Though his work defies literary norms, it’s fun to read and comes laced with sturdy social commentary. In his novel Erasure, a black author accused of writing “too white” ultimately finds financial success by writing a parody of ghetto fiction.
With its deeply layered hero—who is both like and not like the movie star he’s named (or not named) after—I Am Not Sidney Poitier continues some of Erasure’s themes: Both books are interested in race and the expectations that surround it. And like its predecessor, I Am Not Sidney tackles its subjects with satirical gusto. In one of the most evocative scenes in the book—a riff on the Poitier classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—Not Sidney is brought by his white girlfriend to her parents’ house. There, our hero skillfully deals with his girlfriend’s callow father, her horny sister and extended bouts of squirm-inducing awkwardness.
This scene borders on farce, but Everett notes that it’s not any more ludicrous than the film itself. “Why would this 40-year-old, really handsome, internationally acclaimed physician be interested in this 20-year-old idiot, who just happens to be blond?” the author says about the film. In Everett’s version, Not Sidney loses all interest in being acceptable, and the results are pure comic gold.
Even as he brings in issues of bigotry, sexual molestation and murder, Everett effortlessly entertains. “If you can get someone’s attention and confidence by having them laugh, you can pretty much do with them what you will,” he says. And so he does. Unlike Poitier’s screen image, Everett’s book is a less polite beast, and refuses to be shy about speaking its mind.
I Am Not Sidney Poitier (Graywolf, $16 paperback) is out now.
Buy I Am Not Sidney Poitier on Amazon.com | Buy it on BN.com
Three films to watch
Of all the Poitier films he’s watched, Everett cites the most interesting:
The Organization (1971): Lt. Virgil Tibbs has a hard time reconciling his duty as a police officer with a vigilante group that gets results, damn it!
The Bedford Incident (1965): This Cold War submarine thriller pitted Poitier (as a reporter) against Ahabesque captain Richard Widmark.
Band of Angels (1957): The film is based on a Robert Penn Warren book, and is the only one of these three that Everett directly cites in his novel. Of it, the author says, “Poitier isn’t even the star of it, though he has a large role. Clark Gable is the star. And it’s just filled with sick racial stuff about slavery and skin color and everything.”