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Films >> Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000) >> Issue Essay >>

Damage Control: A Good Jefferson

By Chrissie Rapp, with comments by Daniel Carr, Christopher Hall , and Gregory Jakes

[1] In 1998, DNA tests of the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings revealed the likelihood that the two did indeed have a relationship. Until that point, filmmakers had the opportunity to expand on the story in any way they chose because proof was based on oral history and an interview from Hemings' son, Madison. Historians could neither prove nor refute the information, so directors were merely perpetuating a legend. After the testing, it was important for the legacy of a great man to create a movie that posed the situation in a positive light. (see comment by Daniel Carr) Whether or not you believe that the affair occurred is irrelevant; shaky proof of a sexual relationship now exists, and the newest film, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, acts as damage control for the memory of Thomas Jefferson.

[2] The 1995 film Jefferson in Paris is very critical of the President. In director James Ivory's point of view, Sally is a young, somewhat ignorant slave girl who tries to create a better life for herself by getting involved with a man much more powerful than she. Meanwhile, Jefferson is an old bachelor who is infatuated with his pretty young servant and uses her accordingly. The image given to audiences is not one of a couple who have found eternal love but of two individuals who use each other for their own personal gain. Since the film does not make an attempt to show them in a loving relationship, the social boundary between them is clear for the entirety of the film. Jefferson is always the master; Sally is always serving him, even in their more intimate moments.

[3] When Sally Hemings: An American Scandal appeared on television in 2000, the DNA test results had prompted a lot of negative response for the relationship between the President and his slave. While some of Jefferson's supporters maintained that his actions narrowed the distinction between master and slave because the two could form a lasting relationship, many of his critics insisted that the scandal just made Jefferson like every other slave owner in Virginia. The TV miniseries reached an incredibly wide audience and worked to relieve the fears of the public that one of its founding fathers may not have been the great man that history portrayed.

[4] Sally Hemings: An American Scandal begins with the image of a Virginia plantation, and the camera quickly pans to the slave quarters. From history lessons and slave narratives, one might guess that if anyone is actually at the barracks in the middle of a sunny afternoon instead of working in the fields, it would only be the elderly or very, very young. Surprisingly, the row is bursting with life. The slaves are dancing and singing and playing the generally forbidden drums. It appears as though everyone is taking an afternoon break to have fun and rest. In fact, this behavior is common throughout the entire movie; rarely do you see any of the slaves perform actual work. Occasionally, Sally and her family cook in the kitchen or serve at the table, but they do nothing more strenuous than these chores. Because of the new emphasis on Jefferson caused by the DNA tests, the movie also makes a point to show how differently Jefferson treated his slaves from his contemporaries. (see comment by Gregory Jakes)

[5] We meet Sally's mother, Betty, when she begins yelling at the young masters of the house in the opening scene. Not only do they allow her words, but they heed them. Betty, "Momma," has more authority over the household than any of the slaves portrayed in historical texts. Later in the film she is even allowed to reprimand Jefferson himself without any sort of punishment.

[6] Only three points in the film really point to the fact that the people living on the plantation are slaves: when the carpenter is hung, when Sally is captured and beaten to within an inch of her life, and when Jefferson must sell slaves to pay his debts. When Jefferson must finally sell his slaves, he acts as though they are more like his family than his unpaid servants. They look at him as well as each other with similar sentiments. In contrast, both the hanging of the carpenter and Sally's torture are a slight nod to the brutality that slaves had to endure. However, even when Sally is trapped, the white men must exert a lot of effort in order to catch her breaking the law. We have to acknowledge Sally's intelligence because a group of powerful white men had to scheme against her with another slave in order to outsmart her. They had to play into her concern for her fellow slaves and then needed to force another slave to trick her into thinking he was in trouble.

[7] Throughout the film, Sally acts more like a member of the family than a member of the staff--even before she develops a relationship with Jefferson. She first appears accompanying Polly in France. The two act more like sisters or friends than mistress and maid. Sally is even allowed to attend the ball at the palace. Not only does Jefferson have a fancy dress made just for her, but she is allowed to dance with the guests. Sally is asked out onto the floor before her mistress, Patsy, and a dance is a luxury in which we never see Polly take part. It is at the ball that Sally demonstrates her knowledge, for Jefferson has made it his personal mission to educate his young maid as well. Not only does she speak proper English and French but is well versed in both literature and political essays. When she returns to Virginia, Jefferson warns her, "You could be hanged" for teaching other slaves her skills, but he looks the other way when he finds that she is imparting her knowledge against his orders.

[8] Sally and Jefferson are constantly seen strolling the grounds, arm in arm, conversing as equals. They spend many believably intimate moments in both of their bedchambers. Sally develops the courage to tell Jefferson that she loves him, and although he cannot bring himself to reply in kind right away, he isn't scared by her words. He is just visibly incapable of expressing the same thoughts. Their relationship continues seemingly unaltered, and on his death bed Jefferson admits to Sally that he has always loved her. These moments nearly boost Sally to the position of mistress of the household. She has her own rooms within the house, she can direct the slaves, and, most importantly, she has power over Jefferson. In contrast, when the two are in public in any fashion--even if only surrounded by other members of the household--the two are distant. Sally doesn't seem to have a problem acting the part of a slave, and Jefferson ignores her as such. The line between slave and master is less distinct in this film than in Jefferson in Paris. Sally and Jefferson share some truly valuable time together, but at times they recognize their social positions instead of their feelings.

[9] Only near the end of the film does the noble portrayal of Jefferson fail. Jefferson is sitting alone in a large, empty room. Perhaps the filmmaker was trying too hard to elicit sympathy for his hero, but the situation of the room paints a different picture of Jefferson. While lonely, the vastness of his home just goes to show how much Jefferson is retaining while his slaves are being driven away in rickety carts. Jefferson cares about his slaves, but not to the point where he is willing to give up his home--the home that they built for him. He could conceivably sell Monticello and move into a more economical dwelling, but he refuses to give up his castle. (see comment by Christopher Hall)

[10] Interestingly, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal was written by a black woman and directed by a white man. Tina Andrews, the author, created this version of the story to empower the African-American woman. Also crucial at the time was portraying Jefferson in a positive light. This film was able to achieve both goals, for the two views are intertwined. Knowing that Sally was in a relationship with Jefferson, she must have had some sort of control over him (mentally and/or emotionally) in order to be considered a powerful woman. At the same time, Jefferson must allow her some sort of hold on his emotions in order to create a credible, loving relationship. He must also allow her some power if he is to separate himself from his contemporaries who would show no respect for their slaves.

[11] Sally Hemings: An American Scandal is successful at allowing Jefferson to remain a national hero. Simultaneously, Sally Hemings is given respect as a woman he loved rather than a woman of whom he took advantage. Whether or not the movie is based entirely on fact, it does manage to make good and complete characters out of both Sally and Jefferson. Watching the movie, we want to believe that their on-screen characters are accurately portraying the relationship between the two historical figures.


Gregory Jakes (Nov. 2009)

It's true that the film portrays Jefferson as treating his slaves surprisingly well by barely ever showing them doing manual labor, but is it really done in an effort to help preserve Jefferson's noble image? Or is it actually done to protect Sally's? Rapp doesn't mention that the film's representation of an easy slave's life is historically inaccurate. Monticello was just as cruel a place as any other plantation. The historical records show that Jefferson whipped slaves, gave them meager nourishment, and treated them as any other Virginian plantation owner did. However, he did treat a certain set of slaves differently, with easier workloads and more respect -- those slaves were the Hemingses. They were the house servants who had to do less laborious tasks. Even Madison Hemings' memoir mentions this fact. So isn't it possible that this lighter workload was spread to the rest of the slaves represented in the film in order to minimize the gap between an average slave and a Hemings? Tina Andrews could have done this in order to make Sally's relationship with Jefferson more plausible and less controversial. If all the slaves were treated well, who's to say one could have been treated almost as a spouse? By raising the level of civility in Jefferson's slave treatment, Sally doesn't look overly proud in her obviously superior position. The effect helps to close the door on outside jealousy. If this is Tina Andrews' strategy, then she also discredits the idea that the love affair was actually ugly rape, also improving Jefferson's image. So the film's historically inaccurate representation of slave life does distinguish Jefferson as Rapp states but also mediates Sally's character to lessen the radicalism of her situation.

Christopher Hall (Nov. 2009)

The noble portrayal of Jefferson does not fail at all in this point in the room. Jefferson only resorted to selling his slaves as a last-ditch effort to get out of debt and satisfy his creditors. Before selling his slaves, Jefferson sold his most prized possessions. Monticello was only bare because he put the furniture of Monticello, the European paintings, and the valuable clocks up for auction. Even Jefferson's most cherished collection -- his books -- was sold off as attempt to keep out of debt. He only sold off his slaves as a last resort; the very last resort before Monticello. Monticello embodied Jefferson; it was his legacy and home. To base an argument on the assumption that selling Monticello would have kept the slaves from being sold is wrong. Selling Monticello would leave the slaves and Jefferson without a home, and it is unknown if the sale of Monticello would have even been able to cover Jefferson's debt. Jefferson's selling of virtually every resource he had before his slaves and Monticello is only evidence of Jefferson's caring and love for the slaves of Monticello. Even the selling of his slaves would not stop Jefferson from losing Monticello in the end.

Daniel Carr (Nov. 2009)

Rapp makes the point that until DNA evidence surfaced, all literature and media based on the supposed affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was the result of oral tradition and artistic license. After DNA evidence gave a scientific edge to those believing the affair occurred, a large void was left to put a positive spin on this ever more conclusively growing issue. Rapp goes on to explain that Sally Hemings: An American Scandal aims to portray the relationship, as well as Jefferson and Hemings themselves, in a positive light. The irony of this goal is that it is achieved not by using factual evidence, but by taking on the same unrealistic artistic license that was used before the DNA even came about. Rapp makes many good points but seems to miss the irony that although the film is now based on DNA evidence, the culture of the plantation and the characters of the people who surround said relationship are immensely less believable than in prior film accounts of the issue. Rapp later writes that "Only three points in the film really point to the fact that the people living on the plantation are slaves: when the carpenter is hung, when Sally is captured and beaten to within an inch of her life, and when Jefferson must sell slaves to pay his debts." If only three points throughout the entire film make this a realistic location and mini-culture, a great deal of its credibility as an influence on the reputation of Jefferson is lost. Although Rapp greatly explains how the film is different, she fails to question whether or not it is able to achieve its goals.