Mini-Symposium on the Politics of Sally Hemings
By the Reel American History class, Lehigh University, February 2011
Teacher's note: Reel history often has a political agenda. Peter Rollins says that "Hollywood has often attempted to influence history by turning out films consciously designed to change public attitudes." Such is the Sally Hemings film. African American Tina Andrews envisions her Hemings as "the voice of the silenced" expressing outrage against Jefferson to "further dialogue between the races." A tricky task, indeed. I asked our class if her agenda is a good thing, and, if so, is it successful?
Contributors: Adrianna Abreu, Nick Alakel, Tom Bianchi, Karen Haberland, Kelley Higgins, Taylor Kite, Lauren Mains, Taara Ness-Cochinwala, Samuel Olsen, Anthony Pascale, Tanya Saleh, Dana Shakked, Erin Thorn, Andrew Tye, Jena Viviano, Katy Watters, Jonathan Zubkoff
Katy Watters, "A Big Disappointment"
Critta Hemings kneels beside her sister Sally in a field on the Monticello grounds and confesses that she has mutilated herself. Crying, she tells Sally that she refuses to bring another child into slavery, for it is a life she wishes upon no one. Critta takes it upon herself to do what she views as her only option to help end slavery. As a viewer, I cringed at the thought of such an action while admiring Critta's resolve in doing what she felt was best for her potential offspring--nonexistence. As Critta tearfully explains that nonexistence is better than a life without freedom, we see a philosophical argument presented that is ignored, if not refuted throughout the film by Sally Hemings herself.
In Critta, I saw a strong woman. And much to my dissatisfaction, Tina Andrews, director of Sally Hemings: An American Scandal provides her audience with a far less courageous heroine in the film's title character. Andrews states in an interview, "[I] could not have a weak-minded Sally Hemings," but, instead, she creates a protagonist who exudes qualities contrary to her intended character. In France, Sally learns to read and write. But she obviously never learns to think critically. When given the opportunity to live a life as a free woman in Paris, Sally declines, limiting prospects for her unborn child and herself, as well as her brother, James, who feels it necessary to accompany her on her voyage back to the United States. In Virginia, James turns to alcohol to ease the loss of true freedom while Sally's first son, Tom, is born into servitude.
Sally's decisions are not necessarily a reflection of her inability to think critically and may be a result of purely selfish intentions. Later in the film, Sally reveals to Jefferson's daughter, Martha, that she has been free since she returned from France. It is in this moment, when Sally divulges that she has chosen servitude for herself and for all of her children that shocked me most. Sally's choice to commit herself to a man, especially a man who did not treat her as an equal, who did not treat their children as his own—does not allow her to represent a strong woman.
When Harriet, Sally's daughter, refuses to serve the visiting Du Ponts, it is Sally who "put her in her place," forcing Harriet to perform her slave duties. It seems that the idea of serving is so ingrained in Sally that she is unable to allow even her daughter to escape oppression, if just for an evening. This episode is incongruous with Sally's shouting match regarding Jefferson's early writings on slaves and African Americans in which she angrily refutes Jefferson's arguments. It is this inconsistency that contributes to Sally's weakness as a character. Sally urges Jefferson to act on behalf of slaves in Congress, but her insistence upon action is not powerful enough. She certainly talks a "good game" in front of Jefferson but never truly does anything to procure freedom for herself. Technically, Sally has documentation proving she is "free," but why then did she choose a life of servitude for not only herself but for her children?
Tina Andrews' attempt to create a smart, strong woman for her Sally Hemings character was a failure. To argue Sally's behavior was a result of love is preposterous--I would more readily believe that she suffered from something along the lines of Stockholm syndrome. Sally's character is selfish to choose servitude for her children and inconsistent with her view of slavery. Andrews had the opportunity to create a great woman because little is known about Sally Hemings in real life -- she is truly a blank canvas as a character. Andrews says she believes that "Mr. Jefferson disappointed Sally Hemings," but Andrews' Hemings certainly disappointed me.
Nick Alakel, "Her Strength Is Represented Inaccurately"
Tina Andrews seeks to portray Sally Hemings as a strong woman, while at the same time preserving the conventional idealized image of Thomas Jefferson as a great American. By presenting both characters in this largely positive light, Andrews understates the power dynamic that would have been present in the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson. Sally Hemings, particularly early in the film, is not seen as a slave. Megan Rosenfield recognizes this inaccurate depiction, stating that when Sally first appears "Every other woman's hair is bound up in the fashion of the time--braided, covered, bundled in a bun, but she alone has wavy locks that flow down her back and curve around her face." In her first appearance Sally does not seem to be bound by the confines of slavery even before her relationship with Jefferson has begun. Furthermore, there is a lack of depiction of the strenuous labor to which the slaves would have been subjected to in reality. The absence of this hard labor in the film serves to further understate the power Jefferson held over Sally.
The slave-master power dynamic is further eroded when Jefferson and Hemings travel to France. In one particularly problematic scene, Sally is invited to attend a ball with the family and is even given a new dress. She then goes unquestioned when she directly addresses Thomas Paine, a white man of high status. The first intimate contact between the two comes shortly after this scene in which the slave-master dynamic is markedly absent. Without the presence of this dynamic, the pressure Sally must have felt to yield to her much older master is not seen in the film. While the lack of this dynamic allows Sally to challenge Jefferson on much of his writing and she appears strong for doing so, her strength is represented inaccurately. If Andrews wanted to portray a more historically factual Sally Hemings, she should have focused on her endurance of the hardships of slavery and the difficulties of being in a subordinate position to Jefferson.
Karen Haberland, "Too Historically Inaccurate to Truly Do Justice to the Cause"
I think writer Tina Andrews' agenda is commendable in that inter-racial dialogue could indeed begin using some of the points made in this movie. The film does a very good job of using one source of racial tension, the relationship between a white man and a black woman, to encompass many other race-related issues, such as the inferiority of blacks to whites, illiteracy, and the existence of the Underground Railroad. I also applaud the writer for depicting both sides of the story. She brought to question the contradicting opinions of Thomas Jefferson and made the viewers ask, just what did he really believe? How could a man who stated that "all men are created equal" to share the rights to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" also write that blacks were a lesser breed? Why would he describe them as being "in reason much inferior" and describe them as one would an animal, chronicling their smell, amount of hair, tolerance of heat, and sleeping habits? Andrews brings to light just how polar Jefferson's views were but doesn't attempt to answer which was his true view. She gives the audience the facts, and lets us decide for ourselves.
To further her agenda, Andrews brings Sally into the picture as "the voice of a thousand slaves." I think Sally's character, one the audience can somewhat relate to, is a good way to make the audience understand the issues. However, I had a problem with the huge polarity in Sally's actions throughout the film. I thought that, being a strong woman standing up for plight of slaves, she would continuously fight for her people's rights. She does appear to do so at some points, like when she tears apart Jefferson's words in Notes on the State of Virginia. But then we find out that she has been free all this time and chose not to accept it. This contradicts her entire role because she is supposed to be supporting the cause, but instead condemns six children to the same life.
I also think Sally's character was far too historically inaccurate to truly do justice to the cause. There is just so little information on Sally that the writer appears to have taken everything she could come up with and jumbled it all together into the character we see on the screen. Yes, maybe in real life Sally could have learned to read, but just because her grandchildren were school teachers and part of the Underground Railroad does not automatically mean she was, too. But these are nothing compared to the idea that Sally would receive a specially made dress for an aristocratic party. I agree that depicting the "great woman behind the great man" gives us a fresh view of Jefferson's life, but I think the movie would have been far more compelling if Sally's character had come closer to historic possibility.
Kelley Higgins, "Respect or Disappointment?"
I have to admit that I am a bit confused about how successful Andrews is in illustrating Jefferson and the issue of slavery in the film. One of Andrews' motives is to bring people together to agree about the past; however, there are a lot of conflicting views of Jefferson and how we choose to view his relationship with Sally Hemings. Does Andrews want us to view Jefferson as a respectable President for his just treatment of the slaves, considering that abolishing slavery did not seem probable at the time, or does she want us to be disappointed in him for pursuing a (fictionally constructed) love relationship with a slave while at the same time not making any progress towards emancipation? It seems like her motive is the latter, but Andrews' inclusion of certain scenes -- such as Jefferson teaching Hemings to read, Hemings scorning a white man for his maltreatment of a slave to emphasize Jefferson's firm views on not beating his slaves, Jefferson removing his nephew from the plantation upon catching him touching Sally, and Jefferson's expression of disappointment and shame in himself in having to sell his slaves -- cause us to view Jefferson in somewhat of a positive light. Since he realized a political movement towards emancipation was not appropriate at the time because the public would not at all tolerate or accept the matter and it would likely result in social uproar and violence, I am able to admire Jefferson despite the disappointment he may have caused Sally. Whether this is Andrews' intention or not, it is a message she sends across by including these scenes of a very generous and caring Jefferson in the film. In an interview, Andrews states that "Mr. Jefferson, I really felt, disappointed Sally Hemings." My question is whether Andrews would have been better off excluding these scenes from the film to highlight the opportunity that Jefferson had but failed to take and to emphasize the disappointment she wants society to jointly feel towards Jefferson's actions.
Jena Viviano, "It Became Just a Romance Movie."
Tina Andrews' intention of orchestrating a "culture of conversation" between races today is understandable, but I feel that her implementation is lacking. She wants to portray Sally (whom we know little to nothing about) as a strong-willed woman who influenced one of the most powerful leaders of our country. Along with the obvious disconnect in terms of historical reference, Andrews shows great inconsistency within the film itself. She portrays Sally as a beautiful, charming, educated individual who fights for the rights of her people. She showcases Sally as an inspirational character, but then, at the same time, she shows her giving up her freedom for a man. The scene at the end of the movie between Jefferson's daughter and Sally after his death really terminated any belief (in my mind) that Sally was fighting for her freedom. In my mind, why would she stay and subject her children to slavery? For a man? Who loves her? My response to that would be, does he really love her? Would a man want his love and his children to be wrapped in an inhumane bondage? I would think not. That disconnect alone really tattered my impression of Sally and of Andrews. This scene damaged any credibility that I felt towards Andrews' interpretation of the life and love of Sally Hemings. At this point, it was apparent that the film would only fulfill entertainment purposes for me -- it became just a romance movie. I didn't leave the movie thinking about the social dynamics Andrews was trying to dramatize.
Samuel Olsen, "Stoking the Fires of Annoyance"
"Yet, does altering Sally's demeanor defeat the point of honoring her place in history? In telling the story of Sally Hemings, a black slave whose alleged relationship with Jefferson was considered scandalous and immoral, is it right to portray her as a more tolerable version, simply so we can stomach it? Is it counterproductive to the historical record and advancement of society to honor an African American slave through the guise of someone more civilized and 'white'?"
Danielle Gorman asks the very question I asked myself during the movie and find myself asking again and again during these films: did the historical inaccuracy help or hurt the way we as Americans look at history? I feel more often than not that inaccuracy in any form, even if to combat something we universally accept as "evil," should be kept out of movies purporting to be factual films. I worry that, in 200 years, students like us will look back on a movie like Sally Hemings: An American Scandal and talk about how the historical inaccuracies have misshaped the way we thought of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Who's to say that our idealized version of Christopher Columbus's landing seen in 1492: Conquest of Paradise is any better than the truly fictional version of events we receive in 3rd grade? I would argue that, no, it's not a better set of images unless it's the most accurate set of images we can put together. I feel a little as if I am overstating, like Thoreau when he said, "If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself." This argument is very one-sided, and when this quote was read in class, I was inclined to disagree. However, when I view his argument through my own lens, it makes more sense. I cannot agree that a historical account is just that unless it is as historically accurate as it could possibly be.
To me, making Sally seem as if she has more white characteristics than the other slaves at Monticello undermines the facts. While she may have, in reality, had a relationship with Jefferson, it is doubtful she had the ability to read or write. It is extremely unlikely that Sally had enough power over Jefferson to be listing demands. Such inaccuracies lead me to question the facts in the rest of the film. As Stephanie DeLuca said, "I completely support the movie's purpose, but the product is no reflection of its intention." Jon Zubkoff's comment about the unlikeliness of Sally standing up to the president of the United States stoked the fire, so to speak, under my annoyance with Andrews. I do not like her presumption that her version of history is even potentially correct.
Tom Bianchi, "From Scandal to Love"
I truly admire how Tina Andrews was able to craft the "Jefferson-Hemings" relationship from the scandalous impression into a pleasant love story. I really get the feeling that these two are truly in love by the end of the movie. There were many scenes that made me feel like their relationship was on edge and about to collapse. I got this impression immediately when Sally and Jefferson go for an enjoyable walk and begin spending much time together. Sally says to Jefferson that she loves him, yet he cannot say the same to her. Even though this was early on, it made me wonder how long the relationship was going to last. It is also very amazing to me that Jefferson, a very powerful man, did not abruptly push her away after finding out that Sally was pregnant with his child. Having a child with a slave is not the best news for a politician's campaign. Later, Mr. Carr creates an awkward situation for the "Jefferson-Hemings" relationship. He forces himself upon Sally and shows her Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia to seriously disrupt and damage the relationship. Although what she read was terrible for her fellow African slaves, Sally still ends up in Jefferson's arms. Jefferson, although suspicious of Sally and Mr. Carr sharing some kind of close relationship, still trusted Sally and remained affectionate with her in the end. The fire between the two of them never went out. This is an important part of the movie because "despite their vast cultural differences . . . they remained devoted to each other." Usually behind every great man, there is a great woman. Andrews in this case emphasized that the woman was a woman of color, this is the reason why her agenda was such a good thing. Her agenda was to establish Sally Hemings as the voice for all of the slaves in America. She wanted Sally to be understood as the well educated slave who was able to directly confront the president with slave issues as well as simply having a relationship with him. But, most importantly, Andrews wanted to show Sally frustrated with Jefferson. Even though their relationship was a true and lasting love story, in the end Sally could not get through to Jefferson on slavery.
Tanya Saleh, "A Pattern of Conflicting Behaviors"
I believe Andrews' agenda is a good thing because it is important to reflect upon and accept history in order to improve social cohesion in the future; however, I must side with Megan Rosenfeld in that I don't think that the story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson makes a suitable premise for the forwarding of such an agenda. Andrews communicates her intentions by utilizing the inspiring "against all odds" situation in which Sally (legally a piece of property; no rights, let alone authority) and Jefferson (a revered statesman; highest authority) manage to reach the highest level of equality and respect with one another -- true love -- in a world in which blacks and whites never even look upon one another as peers. Unfortunately, their transcendental love, the phenomenon upon which her "reel" agenda most heavily relies, is also the least verifiable and most inconsequential concept of their relationship according to "real" history. The few facts that we do know -- that raping slaves around Monticello was not unusual (Sally was conceived in rape), and that Sally was fourteen -- suggest that Jefferson abused his power over Sally rather than seduced her into a loving relationship. Even if they were hopelessly in love, as Andrews portrays, their love proved ineffectual in blurring the racial divide (according to facts -- neither she nor her children were formally freed; she was left nothing in his will, Jefferson proposed no new slave legislation) and thus provides meager support for her agenda of broader social cohesion. When viewed within the context of Jefferson's life and the society in which he lived, their relationship seems less of an inspiring triumph than a manifestation of Jefferson's inner conflicts. He preached that all men were "created equal" but owned slaves; he owned slaves but treated them humanely; he treated them humanely but did not consider them worthy of education. The fact that he held a long-term relationship with Sally but did nothing to change her status (legally or socially perceived) as "slave" merely fits into this pattern of conflicting behaviors that marked his life after the American Revolution.
Adrianna Abreu, "A Picture of Strength"
Strength. It is something that all screenwriters want in their protagonists. Andrews displays this desire when she states that Sally Hemings "had to become the voice for all of the slaves and freed blacks in America, then and now." Not once throughout the entire film did it pass through my mind that Hemings was weak. As reviewer Meg Rosenfeld says, "The character of Sally is written as a kind of politically conscious Cinderella, who makes fiery speeches to her master/lover about the obvious injustices and hypocrisies that proliferate around her." Portraying Hemings as a strong-willed woman of color was the best possible way to go, seeing that there is little documentation about the Jefferson and Hemings love affair. Having Sally quote Jefferson's works and teach fellow slaves and her children literature, poetry, and French embed this idea of a self-determined and brave women. Also you wouldn't have that much of a movie if you only portrayed Hemings just laying on her back all the time and never challenging the injustices of the slavery system. Andrews' portrayal of a forbidden and twisted affair, though it may not be historically accurate, was certainly successful. While she could have had Sally be just the concubine of Jefferson or have her succumb to the unwanted pressure from his family, Hemings, instead, is the women who helped the starving French man, saved slaves, and educated dozens.
Taylor Kite, "A Beautiful Film, But One on Civil Rights Better"
Tina Andrews' purpose in this television film is to educate and bring to light issues relating to race relations. She hoped the movie would start conversations between the races about race troubles plaguing our nation. While the historical references certainly demonstrate that there were problems, the romance and interrelationship problems between Sally and Tom are so historically inaccurate that at this point I would struggle to formulate any kind of argument based on them. If Andrews really wanted to create a film that sparked such conversations, I think something based more recently would be more effective. We all know and understand that slavery was a terrible thing, and that the blacks were horribly mistreated as humans. However, slavery is so far removed from our personal spheres that I think a movie on, say, the Civil Rights Movement, for example, would be more effective in starting the kinds of conversations about race relations that she envisioned. Further, during the Civil Rights Movement all parties involved were lawfully given rights to be treated equally. During slavery, our government still supported slavery and poor race relations, so that period of history is not as meaningful in an argument about race problems. Overall, I see the point Andrews is working to make and think that she crafted a beautiful film, but she could have made some valuable changes to achieve her goals and really start some meaningful conversations.
Jonathan Zubkoff, "Who is Tina Andrews to Tell Me How My Hero Thomas Jefferson Lived His Life?"
Slavery is a terrible thing. I understand that completely. Our history probably represents slavery in the wrong way. I've never personally thought about this until now, but the way I learned about slavery was that it was common practice back then to have slaves, that slaves even had some benefits that were greater than those of the African-American workers in the North, and that, in the end, Abe Lincoln freed them all, making a white man the hero of the abolitionist movement. Having said all of this, I don't see how Tina Andrews can simply make stuff up to make this movie. She states in her interview that she understood Jefferson educated Sally Hemings and that therefore she had to create Sally as an educated hero who questioned Jefferson. Megan Rosenfeld, a reviewer who enjoyed the film, called this latest portrayal of the relationship "simply bunk." There is no historical indication Sally Hemings even knew what was going on with her. There is no historical indication that Sally Hemings knew how to read. There is no historical indication that Sally Hemings knew anything about the awful, and blatantly racist, things that Jefferson had written about in his book. So, to simply say that Sally had to be the leader of this revolution is ridiculous.
I understand Andrews is probably just trying to show an alternative version of Sally here that she thinks may have existed. I also understand that the image that Sally creates may also just be an image of her anger of Jefferson doing absolutely nothing over the course of his life to end the practice of slavery. I think the latter point is one that should be taught as early as possible because for a long time I thought Jefferson didn't even own slaves. For me, the point comes down to the fact that we have no historical evidence of any of this. Sally Hemings was a female slave. Jefferson was the President of the United States. As Rosenfeld says, "Most accounts . . . suggest that these were pretty one sided relationships: owner forces himself on slave who has the choice of submitting, dying, or being sold." I'm not suggesting that Jefferson forced himself on Hemings. However, I am suggesting that I think the chances are pretty low that Hemings was in control here. Maybe that is the result of eighteen years of Thomas Jefferson history and two weeks of Sally Hemings history. However, I think that is better than taking almost no information and creating a hero out of someone who probably although respected by Jefferson, wouldn't dare to question the things he had written. In the end, maybe I'm wrong. Everyone else was wrong about a 40-year-old man having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl. Either Jefferson was really creepy, or there had to be something special about this girl.
I still will stand by my beliefs and say Andrews was not right in making this film. By doing so, I do not believe she is helping the African-American community and is instead causing a backlash of defense for Thomas Jefferson and a disapproval for her hero, Sally Hemings. As I said, most people have known Thomas Jefferson for all of their lives. Most people also know next to nothing about Sally Hemings. When someone like Tina Andrews told me otherwise, and I later learned there was no evidence that any of the behaviors displayed by Sally in this film actually occurred, my response is a response that I imagine a lot of people had as well. Who is Tina Andrews to tell me how my hero Thomas Jefferson lived his life?
Anthony Pascale, "There Is Definitely Something to Be Said for Historical Accuracy"
Tina Andrews makes a valiant attempt at bringing the mysterious historical figure of Sally Hemings to life. Her goal is to create a persona that is strong and empowering both to the memory of Hemings, as well as to the modern-day black woman. In addition, because of the many negative sentiments surrounding Jefferson after the DNA test, Andrews was also concerned with portraying the relationship between the former President and his slave in a more positive light. The result of this is an overly romanticized tale in which the foundation is historical fact, but the majority of the film is made up of liberties taken on behalf of the creators.
Andrews created the Hemings that she saw in her heart -- strong, educated, outspoken, and brave. This Sally was not afraid to speak her mind, as portrayed in the scene when she traveled to the White House to get back at Jefferson for his alleged affair or the scene when she discovered his offensive Notes and called him out on his hypocrisies. In reality, it is rather hard to believe that a slave woman of this time would have the ability to pull off such a revenge as to travel to the capital and even harder to believe that she would be able to yell and reprimand a President of the United States, who also happened to be her slave master.
Andrews' agenda is a noble one, and I understand its importance; however, there is definitely something to be said for historical accuracy. While we do not know the many details of Hemings' life, we can infer certain things based on what we know of situations similar to the one in which she found herself. If Andrews were to make a film based on this type of knowledge, it would have been a very different portrayal indeed, most likely involving Thomas Jefferson forcing himself upon his oppressed slave and half-sister of his wife. The result of such a film would be damaging to the reputation of the President, as well as to the memory and legacy of Sally Hemings. In creating the film this way, Andrews successfully changed the perception of both individuals in the minds of many viewers. Whether that change in perception is for the better or worse, however, remains to be seen.
Andrew Tye, "The Victors are Not Always Correct"
Many of his critics insisted that the scandal just made Jefferson like every other slave owner in Virginia. This is important because (at least in my opinion) Jefferson should have received just as much criticism from his supporters for being a hypocrite as he should have from his politicians for having a relationship with a slave. How much of Jefferson's writings and theories before deemed so wise that have had such far reaching implications can now be called into question? The man responsible for writing the foundation of our country did not believe in the very words that were the concrete of the foundation. This is exactly why I think it is great to have writers like Tina Andrews who insert their own beliefs and interpretations into a story that has been told a different way. It is often said that history is written by the victors -- but that does not mean the victors are correct. If writers like Andrews wrote screenplays to the generic version of the story, the viewers to whom the movie aims to educate retain the same biased version they knew before they saw the movie.
Dana Shakked, "Skewed Too Far from the Accurate Historical Events"
Tina Andrews takes on too many issues and contradicts herself in the agenda she claims to have been pursuing in creating the miniseries Sally Hemings: An American Scandal. Andrews talks about making the movie to bring descendants of slaves and slave-owners together to talk about their overlapping history. But she also talks about her disappointment in Thomas Jefferson as a black woman to initiate change and her desire to tell a story about the great woman behind the great man. I think the movie more-so addressed the love-story aspect and skewed too far from the accurate historical events to be used in creating conversation about slavery. Further, Andrews wanted to depict another side of slavery that is often not seen but also not the general reality that existed. Sally was shown as a woman and a slave who was strong, outspoken, and educated, unlike the vast majority of slaves at that time. As such, the agenda item of conversation about slavery would not be based on historical truth. Slave and slave-owner relations, especially between male owners and female slaves, did not exist as they did in this movie, or at least for the most part. It is unrealistic of Andrews to expect her film to address all that she intended because of her inaccurate depiction of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship.
Lauren Mains, "A Fabricated Fairy Tale"
Tina Andrews' intention to create a film that shows the love between a white president and a bi-racial slave in its purest form, throughout all obstacles, is a noble effort. I think that her agenda to close the gap between two groups of people separated throughout history because of race and status by portraying a loving, consensual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings is a good idea. However, I do not think it is completely successful, mainly because of three scenes that demonstrate that the Jefferson-Sally relationship is an exception to the reality of slave/slave owner interactions: 1) when Sally's sister Critta confesses to her that she purposely inflicted physical harm upon herself so that Peter Carrs' rapes would not produce any more babies; 2) when Betty Hemings slaps Sally for telling her mother that their sexual relationships with their owners are the same because they both had a choice; and 3) when William speaks derogatorily to Sally's daughter Harriet when he finds out she is actually a slave. No matter how poetically Andrews portrays the Jefferson/Hemings relationship, her agenda could never fully be met because of the harsh realities displayed in the above scenes. Since Sally's life is not the same as Critta's, Betty's, and Harriet's, nor most female slaves, I do not see how it could further the progress between the two historical groups. To me, seeing these three scenes and having a small educational understanding of the relationships female slaves endured with their owners, Andrews' Jefferson/Hemings love story is nothing more than a fabricated fairy tale and can't be used as a tool for dialogue.
Erin Thorn, "Alienating Sally's Identity as a Woman"
While Andrews' political agenda as an African-American is well taken, she completes her goal while subverting and, I'd argue, alienating her identity as a woman. Andrews' goal of giving Hemings more autonomy when placed within the appropriate historical and cultural context is wholly unrealistic. Certainly such a goal has meaning, but to make the story happen at all, Andrews has to turn a blind eye to the reality of the sexual assault. As Anne Rodriguez points out, romanticizing rape, especially this rape, which we know so little about, is of questionable morality. I'd take it a step further and say that the ways that Andrews portrays the sexual situations between Jefferson and Hemings are marked with the contradictions that are present in real sexual assault situations. And an audience of laymen will miss what is really happening without subsequent explanation.
For instance, the first love-making scene resonates with me. Sally takes off her own dress, waiting for Jefferson to follow her lead, and commentators seem to be in agreement that this makes Sally look like a seductress. But, conversely, since I have a bit of knowledge about sexual assault prevention, it hit me differently. Rape survivors have reported seemingly odd behavior during their assaults, one of which includes taking off their own clothing for the perpetrator in the hopes that he won't hurt them as much as he could. These behaviors by modern rape survivors have been erroneously interpreted by some as indicative of consensual sex. In the context of this situation -- the relationship between a chattel slave and her master -- this scene needs to be appropriately labeled not as a representation of consensual relationship, but as a sexual assault that didn't involve physical violence.
The other scenes that resonate with me are the several scenes in which Sally tries to assure other people that Jefferson loves her and cares for her alongside the scenes in which Jefferson apologizes/assures Sally that he does love her and care about her. This is particularly problematic in modern sexual assault prevention, as it can be very nuanced and therefore difficult to prevent. In this respect, the movie does well to portray accurately the cycle of violence but does little to address it. When Sally and Jefferson are in France, they are clearly happy, enjoying each others' company, etc. When Sally gets pregnant, Jefferson exerts a lot of pressure on Sally to return to Virginia with him, while her brother James tries to convince her that it is in her best interest to stay in France and be free. She, of course, chooses to go with her abuser. When she returns to Virginia, she is met with the same sort of sentiment in her mother, who tries to assure her that she is making a huge mistake by not shaking the delusion that Jefferson loves her as a person. The delusion that someone is in love with you, often fueled by the perpetrator himself, is the hardest to shake. Unfortunately, this is the only concrete mention of such a problematic viewpoint in Sally addressed by her family -- and as her behavior is increasingly shaped by Jefferson (living in his house, going to Washington to confront him, faux-marrying him) her family's voice drops out completely from the storyline. Keeping such steady pressure on Sally to keep the nature of the relationship in sight would have done much to consistently highlight the problematic nature of the affair.
Pushing the political agenda that she did prevented Andrews not only from making a healthy point about the damage of sexual assault but placed her work directly in opposition to such a position, which is so critically needed in our society. With no expenses spared, as Megan Rosenfeld said in her Washington Post review, it's disappointing that Andrews couldn't have made political points advancing both of her identities -- as an African American slave and as a woman.
Taara Ness-Cochinwala, "Unsilenced but Largely Unsuccessful"
Tina Andrews presents multiple political agendas. One that I think is particularly visible and partially successful views Sally as "the voice of the silenced." I see this agenda in operation when Sally speaks back to Jefferson as he reprimands her for trying to free the slave and, in effect, tells her to shut up. However, Sally does not listen to this and will not take his response for an answer. Jefferson is commanding in his address to Sally, arguing that it is the law, people could get hurt, and his plantation is not a place for refugees. In response, Sally passionately speaks as the representative of her race, and we the audience strongly feel and empathize with "their" side of the story in direct contradiction to Jefferson's reiteration of the establishment line. Regrettably, aside from this scene, there are few that support Sally's role as the voice of the silenced, especially in comparison with the number of those that support her as the unsilenced but unsuccessful. In the majority of the movie Sally fails to assertively stand up to Jefferson in the name of herself, her family, and her people. For example, she does not make the decision to stay in France to ensure freedom for her brother and children but instead chooses to return to Monticello to be with Jefferson. If Sally truly wanted to make a difference for the future of her people, one would think she would begin with her own children. There are numerous other points in the movie at which Sally fails at her role as a voice and catalyst for change for the silenced. For example, Sally does not confront Jefferson when her child is buried in the slave cemetery and Martha's in the white cemetery, despite the fact that Jefferson is the child's father. These and similar scenes provide sufficient reason to make the point that while Andrews' agenda is positive and has potential, Sally is only partially successful in fulfilling her role as a voice for the silenced.