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

A Tale of Two Jameses

By Karolina Kiwak, with comments by Matthew Sakalosky, Raquel Santos, and Watson Sweat

[1] The films Jefferson in Paris and Sally Hemings: An American Scandal both depict the scandalized relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. In the background, they also show the relationship between Sally and her older brother, James. Each film utilizes the character of James to enhance the message it is trying to portray. Jefferson in Paris uses James to represent the voice of reason and to fill the role of the strong African slave fighting his captors with knowledge. He is the one with a problem with enslavement and a craving for freedom and rights. Sally is portrayed as a naïve child, searching for someone to take care of her and thus turning to Jefferson to fill that need. James fulfills the role of the intelligent slave because Sally cannot. However, in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, written by an African American woman, that role is filled by Sally. There is no need for James to enlighten Sally and attain freedom for her, because she is clever and intelligent enough to know how to use all her assets to attain what she wants. Thus James is free to fulfill the brotherly role, protecting Sally physically and demonstrating genuine affection for her. In this way, James' character takes on a softer, more human role, as a brother who loves Sally not just one who wants freedom for slaves.

[2 Therefore, the portrayal of the role James Hemings has in Sally Hemings' life is vastly different in Jefferson in Paris than it is in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal. In the former, James is shown as another controlling man in Sally's life, trying to use her for her wages. He gets angry with her for becoming impregnated by Jefferson and tries to use the situation against Jefferson to attain freedom. In contrast to the James of Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, this James is portrayed as an intelligent man who knows how to manipulate the information he attains in order to benefit himself and Sally, This James welcomes Sally to Paris, watches out for her. He wants her to stay in Paris for her freedom, and it's actually believable that he can and will take care of her. He later continues to defend Sally and his sisters, until he cannot take it anymore and takes his own life.

[3] In Jefferson in Paris, James is portrayed as an uptight, angry African American male. He is obviously bitter about enslavement, rightly so, and he is eager to learn the ways of Paris, where there is no such thing as a slave. He is shown as bright and clever in contrast to Sally's childish dim-wittedness. He scurries around eavesdropping and asking questions in order to figure out his rights, and then demands them of Jefferson. He constantly has a look of pensive consternation on his face. He is shown as an intelligent human being, not a stereotypical slave. Sally, instead, encompasses this role better, at first speaking slave dialect, telling ghost stories, and dancing the "pigeon wing."

[4] James is obviously frustrated with being enslaved. He wants to attain his freedom and also wants to attain it for Sally as well. He wants her to get wages because she has the right to them. However, how he handles it is quite aggressively. He practically manhandles her, becoming a bully from whom she runs. He tries to coerce her to ask for wages, while a frightened Sally turns to Jefferson for protection. James becomes an unsympathetic character in the eyes of the audience at this moment. He physically hurts her, and even though the cause is to benefit Sally, he still comes off as the villain. Thus, in turn, making Jefferson the hero. Actually, this is the first interactive scene between Sally and Jefferson that the audience sees. Jefferson emerges from his room to save Sally from James. Then Sally continues to stay in the room to avoid James' wrath, thus leading to the first vibe of sexual tension between Jefferson and Sally. Therefore, James inadvertently pushes Sally into the arms of Jefferson, a relationship that he clearly does not condone. (see comment by Watson Sweat)

[5] When James finds out Sally is pregnant with Jefferson's baby, he angrily gives a long speech about the importance of freedom for slaves and the fact that slaves are men, not animals. Ironically, James encompasses and delivers passionately what Jefferson writes. He, in essence, says all men are created equal and deserve the same rights, words Jefferson writes but never acts upon, continuing instead to keep slaves, and later to sell them to dig his way out of debt. James is once again portrayed as the intelligent slave, educated and passionate about his rights, especially in comparison to the bumbling Sally, crying for her mother. James finally demands to stay in Paris. Jefferson concedes condescendingly, telling James he will not be able to support himself, let alone Sally, before continuing on to say that he will not be able to take care of James. This once again underlines Jefferson's feelings of superiority towards James because he is a slave; it also highlights James' courage because he is standing up to a man he has known as his master all his life. He definitely looks more competent standing next to the bawling Sally. He once again has a serious, thoughtful look on his face, concentrated on attaining freedom. In this movie, he is portrayed as the clever slave, who has a brain, and is well spoken, and knows how to use the information he has gained to get what he wants -- which he eventually does. He gains his freedom and insures freedom for Sally and her children as well. He comes off as a serious negotiator, but one who goes back to America out of fear of being left alone in a foreign country, hinting at a slight dependency on Jefferson and demonstrating the repercussions of growing up enslaved.

[6] In contrast, the James in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal comes off as warm and personable. He seems to actually like Sally. He is also well informed and trying to attain his freedom. This James, however, does not come off as cold or angry. He is well spoken and wants all the things the other James wants, but he is not mechanical about it. There is a warmth and tenderness he demonstrates towards Sally that the other James does not. He smiles and seems happy, at least at the beginning. He is Sally's equal; he does not feel superior to her. Especially since Sally is portrayed as equally intelligent and perceptive of her surroundings. She is not the bumbling little girl of Jefferson in Paris. (see comment by Raquel Santos)

[7] James walks around with Sally and protects her from the rioting crowds of the Parisian streets. He protectively clutches Sally, which is a stark contrast to the other James who aggressively grabs Sally's arm and tugs her around like a rag doll. In this way, this James comes off as more brotherly. He gets wages for himself, and before they leave Paris, he demands his freedom, as well as Sally's. He agrees to go back to America not because he is afraid of living on his own and the threat that Jefferson won't be there to take care of him, but because the threat of the Revolution is literally on their doorstep. If James stays he will likely be killed or at least will have to live on the unstable streets of hunger- and poverty-stricken Paris. These things obviously do not appeal to him, so he agrees to return to Monticello, his freedom momentarily crippled by circumstance not fear. (see comment by Matthew Sakalosky)

[8] At Monticello the tide turns. He returns triumphant and educated. He thinks he is free and holds his head up high. Yet as soon as he steps out of the carriage, he is ordered to the stables, and a shadow visibly falls over his face. James realizes he had freedom in his grasp and he let it slip away. In America, he will never be seen as an equal, and this crushes him. This begins his descent into alcoholism, his coping mechanism to dealing with losing his freedom. In conjunction with the alcohol and his anger with being "re-enslaved" by being a black on a plantation, James has no qualms talking back to a white. While he is there, he once again proves his protectiveness over his sisters by defending one of them from her "master" rapist. He eventually leaves the plantation because he cannot watch his family and other slaves be treated disrespectively while he stands idly by.

[9] After leaving Monticello, James spirals even further down the path of alcoholism. He still manages to muster some brotherly protection, defending Sally to the sleazy reporter, trying to protect her reputation. This once again shows the warmth of James, acting out as a brother, trying to save her and shield her from the cruelties of the world. He is not just trying to merely gain her freedom, and, in this moment, he is not just acting with intellect, for he is inebriated, but he is acting with his heart. Something that is not shown in the James of Jefferson in Paris. Eventually, James is overtaken by the realization that he will never be free. He gained his freedom from his master only to be enslaved by alcohol, and so he ends his life, in a passionate moment of desperation.

[10] Thus James Hemings is portrayed in two different ways. He comes off as intelligent in both scenarios. However, in Jefferson in Paris, James comes off as using his head, and being very calculating, and even a little manipulative. In Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, James is warmer and thinks more with his heart and emotions. He comes off as a more likable James. James comes off as more of a person who thinks for himself and tries to do right by his family, and, in the end, he is destroyed by his own emotions. This demonstrates the larger scheme of things in both films. In Jefferson in Paris, James must be the calculating intellect to fulfill the role of the strong, smart slave fighting the white man for his rights. In Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, Sally already takes on that role, therefore James can settle into the role of loving brother, a more genuine and sympathetic character.


Matthew Sakalosky

One thing that could add to the argument that Jefferson in Paris James is the intelligent, crafty, freedom-grabbing slave and Sally Hemings James is a more peaceful, brotherly person is that even though in Jefferson in Paris James is portrayed as an intelligent but cynical slave, he is also portrayed as slightly childish. He sneaks around to find information about the lack of slavery in France instead of asking around (which is something more suited to the Sally Hemings James), he asks Jefferson for wages more as a child looking for an allowance, and he comes to Jefferson with the demand of freedom more as a temper tantrum. The Sally Hemings James, on the other hand, is more matured. He asks for freedom in Paris man-to-man with Jefferson and shakes his hand. When he asks for fulfillment of that promise, he does it in a very civilized manner. He doesn't just look at the present as a child does; he has faith the future will hold more opportunities, so he doesn't go grabbing for everything in the moment, as Jefferson in Paris James does. He sees that Paris is a rioting hell-hole and not a place to safely live, so he agrees to leave peacefully, unlike the other James. He also stays around Monticello after returning from Paris and doesn't take up the offer of freedom right away because he knows he has responsibilities and he knows he needs to take care of his sister. This view leads to the observation that Jefferson in Paris James also has in mind what's best for Sally, but does it in the only manner he knows how -- that of an adolescent. He comes off angry and aggressive when dealing with Jefferson and Sally, but that's because he doesn't have faith in others to follow through with their actions, and so he attempts to make his ideas happen immediately. Sally Hemings James is a more calm and trusting man, having faith in himself to get things done in a prudential manner and for other respectable people to do what they say.

Watson Sweat (Nov. 2009)

"He [James] physically hurts her, and even though the cause is to benefit Sally, he still comes off as the villain. Thus, in turn, making Jefferson the hero." This is an interesting take on this scene. While it is undisputed that James does in fact come off as threatening Sally if she doesn't confront Jefferson about obtaining pay for her services, calling Jefferson a "hero" in this situation is putting a spin on this confrontation that is unwarranted. James's methods for trying to make Sally obtain wages come off as crude and aggressive, but this could be based on the portrayal in Jefferson in Paris of Sally as "childish and dim-witted." James may feel that he has to push Sally in what he feels is the right direction for her, or else she will simply stray and do whatever Jefferson tells her to do because he is Master. On the other hand, Jefferson does indeed "save" Sally to an extent from James's aggressive tactics; but just doing this deed, most likely unwittingly, does not make up for the very simple fact that he is still "saving" one of his own slaves from another. This act would be greatly increased in value if it wasn't being done to slaves. But this detail seems to be lost on Sally, as she is deeply affected by Jefferson's actions, strengthened by the end product of her obtaining pay from him in a following scene. Both of these events do undeniably lead "to the first vibe of sexual tension between Jefferson and Sally." While Sally's unintelligent depiction in Jefferson in Paris makes it easier for the audience to believe that her "rescue" by Jefferson and her gaining pay from him lead to the first rise of sexual tension between them, it is hard to believe that James's heavy-handed approach towards his own sister makes him out as a villain and his and Sally's master as a hero.

Raquel Santos (Nov. 2009)

I agree that James's two characters in these two films are somewhat contrasting, but their tempers are quite similar. In the scene in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal when James finds out that Sally is pregnant, he is just as aggressive as he was in Jefferson in Paris. He violently grabs his sister's arm and says "How could you bring another slave bastard into this world?" James tries to convince Sally to stay in France and claim her freedom by using her child to make her feel guilty. In this film, Sally says exactly what James wants her to say, that she will not give birth to another slave. She is much more intellectual and independent in this film than she is in Jefferson in Paris. James's character is much more tolerant of his sister in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal than in Jefferson in Paris, and this is what causes the difference in his two characters. His temper is slightly greater in Jefferson in Paris because Sally is intolerable and dumb. He knows that his sister is an intelligent human being in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, and he trusts her much more than the James Hemings in Jefferson in Paris trusts his oblivious sister.