Saturday, November 20, 2010

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

Sometimes it takes satire to get how absurd modern day America can be. And Percival Everett does exactly that in his 2009 novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier. He attacks identity politics, political correctness, academia, celebrities, the middle class, and everything else in between with a finely sharpened satirical twist.

Not Sidney Poitier is so named by his crazy mama who couldn’t have possibly known that he’d grow up to look exactly like the young actor, but his name becomes a bane of existence since nobody gets that his name really is Not Sidney Poitier. After NSP’s mother dies, he goes to live with Ted Turner (yes, that Ted Turner) in whose media empire NSP’s mother invested generously enough that she left NSP a millionaire. NSP is set up in his own home on Turner’s estate and is pretty much left to his own devices. A target for bullies at school, NSP develops a technique in hypnotism that leaves his victims under his complete control, a power he uses to humorous effect. After getting in trouble, he leaves school and decides to return to hometown in Los Angeles, but winds up in a southern prison camp. When the bus transporting prisoners crashes, he and a fellow chained prisoner escapes through the woods as a posse of prison guards and hound dogs are hot on their trail.

Sounds familiar? Good, because it’s the plot to Sidney Poitier’s seminal film The Defiant Ones, costarring the late Tony Curtis. This is just one of many tricks Everett plays on the reader because the entire plot of I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a parody on a number of Poitier’s famous movies, including The Heat of the Night, A Patch of Blue, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and on and on.

As Not Sidney Poitier attempts to get back home, he not only encounters prison, but college and backwoods southern life too, all the while struggling to maintain his identity. I Am Not Sidney Poitier is filled with a cast of familiar characters, from Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, a sheriff who resembles Rod Steiger’s character in The Heat of the Night, and the author himself, albeit a twisted version of himself, a professor who teaches a class on nonsense.

I Am Not Sidney Poitier is one of those rare books that will have you laughing to yourself, not only to the allusions to Poitier’s well-known movies, but to the sharp observations about identity itself. What does it mean to have an identity when everyone thinks you look like someone else, especially when that someone else is an actor who for the longest time was considered the only acceptable model of black manhood? While the on-going joke of NSP’s name gets tired pretty fast and Everett’s characterization of Ted Turner seems forced (the actual Turner is a lot nuttier than the one depicted here), I Am Not Sidney Poitier is still an astute look at what it still means to be black in the Obama era.

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