Epic television miniseries exploring the complicated relationship of Thomas Jefferson and slave Sally Hemings, who conducted a 38 year love affair, spanning an ocean, ultimately producing children, grandchildren, and lots of controversy.
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The story of the extraordinary, controversial thirty-eight-year relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress, Sally Hemings. The teenage Sally begins her unexpected relationship with widower Thomas Jefferson in Paris where he is serving as the U.S. Ambassador to France. After escorting Jefferson's younger daughter on a trans-Atlantic journey to join him in Paris, Sally is soon exposed to a world quite unlike the one in which she has lived as an illiterate slave in Monticello. While Sally serves as a nanny of sorts, Jefferson provides her with an education, fine clothes and opportunities to experience cultural events. She and her brother, James, who works as Jefferson's chef and was also educated by him, delight in the fact that they are free in France-and are treated with respect. It is under these circumstances that Sally and Jefferson become acquainted with one another and begin an affair that will ultimately lead to scandal. Written by
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
I wish I had run across this unheralded made-for-TV film several months ago, while I was writing a graduate-level paper on the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings controversy. Director Charles Haid's production brings this age-old debate to life in a moving and I believe-historically accurate manner.
Although the writing credits do not mention Barbara Chase-Riboud's 1979 novel, `Sally Hemings,' this work of inspired historic fiction seems to be the primary inspiration for Tina Andrews' screenplay. The novel, likewise, was built upon the 1974 landmark book by Fawn McKay Brodie, `Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait.' Savagely attacked by the academic elite at the time, Brodie's work was supported by Annette Gordon-Reed's `Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy' in 1996 and by DNA testing two years later. Some still refuse to believe. For the open-minded, though, Brodie and Gordon-Reed's books (which I highly recommend) painted a clear portrait, even if it may have been blurred a bit around the edges. The DNA evidence merely cemented their scholarship.
Andrews and Haid, like Chase-Riboud, Brodie and Gordon-Reed, take an even-handed, fair look at events as they may well have happened. Naturally, like Chase-Riboud's novel, this is historic fiction. Large chunks of private lives are recreated on the sparsest bits of evidence and speculation. The story, however, stands up to scrutiny as a fictitious narrative. Did Jefferson and Hemings exchange years of romantic letters, which were later destroyed? We will never know. Did Jefferson's long-term relationship with Hemings, which by its very length would seem to dispel the arguments that it was either an ongoing rape or purely a sexual relationship, affect his ideas on slavery and emancipation? We will probably never know. Does this movie paint a portrait of two very real human beings, acting and reacting as they may very well have done 200 years ago? I believe it very much does so.
This is probably not the place for an in-depth analysis of the arguments for and against the Hemings' family claims. Personally, I found in my own research that the relationship between the two seems very likely to have been real and to have been a true love story -albeit a tragic one. If one accepts the basic tenets that Jefferson and the teenage slave became physically and emotionally involved in Paris and that they continued a somewhat secret love affair for nearly 40 years, which bore several mulatto children, then the story of Jefferson and his slaves is a particularly complex and poignant one. A true Enlightenment man, Jefferson was certainly keenly aware of the disparity between his words `all men are created equal' and other such epitaphs and his ownership of more than 100 African-American slaves.
As in the Chase-Riboud novel, Jefferson is seen as a good man, but far from perfect. Sam Neill, although his physical resemblance to the third president is slight, captures the complexity and ambiguity of this brilliant, yet tortured individual. In his heart he knows slavery is wrong, but can never bring himself to abandon his rising political star by taking such a politically suicidal stance. Later, after his wealth and influence have crumbled, he is wracked by regret for not having used his earlier power to fight slavery. At least this is Haid's take and I think it is a perfectly supportable one. Carmen Ejogo, meanwhile, is lovely and convincing as the mysterious Sally Hemings. Unlike Chase-Riboud's character, Ejogo's Sally is not sophisticated beyond all likelihood for her time and place. She could read and write French and English and obtained many of the social skills of a genteel country lady; yet she was probably not the cerebral debutant of the novel.
The rest of the cast is strong, including legendary black actress Diahann Carroll as the family matriarch, Betty Hemings, and Mare Winningham as Martha Jefferson Raldolph. While Andrews and Haid may occasionally slip into presentism and have Sally and others mouth very 2000-sounding lectures on black pride, etc., they generally avoid such temptations. The movie transports the viewer into Jefferson and Hemings' world and into their lives as they very well may have been lived.
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