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

Sally Hemings: An Effective Inaccuracy

By Danielle Gorman, with comments by Emre Turan, Sabrina Velazquez, and Erin Wildeman

[1] While we will never know which is more representative of the "true" Sally Hemings, the differing depictions provided to us in Jefferson in Paris and Sally Hemings: An American Scandal force us to question which writer was more accurate. However, in doing so, we must also ask ourselves if a small sacrifice of accuracy was the more effective approach in terms of reaching a broader audience and disseminating the historical value of this tale.

[2] In Jefferson in Paris, Sally is an unrefined, submissive slave. She is in the midst of Parisian culture but seems distant and oblivious to it. While she is in the vicinity of King Louis XVI, Marquis de Lafayette, the Cosways, and enlightened liberal aristocrats, she carries on with ignorance and detachment and never acquires any of the culture that the Sally in the latter film does.

[3] In Jefferson in Paris, Sally also seems less prominent in Jefferson's affections, at least for the majority of the film. Jefferson spends time with Maria Cosway, playing "Head and Hearts," visiting churches, playing duets, and having personal conversations. Maria continues to affect Jefferson throughout his life -- they exchange letters while they are apart, and Jefferson later expresses his love for her while at the opera. His flirtations continue, even as he injures his wrist in a showy attempt to win her attention. Not until an hour into this film does Sally finally arrive, coincidentally in the midst of Jefferson and Maria's reunion. (see comment by Erin Wildeman)

[4] Sally does not have the assertion of her counterpart in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal. When her brother James prods her to demand wages for her work while in France, she avoids the subject and tends to Jefferson instead. In a display of her ignorant and uncultured character, she pretends to see ghosts. Later in the film we see Sally prancing around the bedroom in an attempt to cheer up Jefferson; from the outside, we see that she is a laughable spectacle.

[5] The pursuit and reciprocity of the relationship is also starkly different. In Jefferson in Paris, our first inkling is when Sally begins to stroke Jefferson's face as he sleeps, then continues to "brush away a fly" when he notices. While the attraction develops, Sally continues to assert her position as his slave; we are reminded of this throughout in small scenes, such as when Sally unbuckles Jefferson's shoes despite his visible discomfort with the situation. (see comment by Sabrina Velazquez) The relationship in this film is also less mutual. We see Jefferson walk past Sally's door, as she appears to be waiting and then disappointed. While Jefferson cares enough to persuade Sally to come back to Monticello, the film ends in a discomforting manner. It is unclear whether Sally is content or sad, and it is obvious that Jefferson got his way with little effort or affection.

[6] The Sally in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal provides a completely different interpretation of history. Unlike the aforementioned Sally, this Sally acquires the culture that surrounds her. While in France, she attends balls, quotes Thomas Paine, and learns to read and write. She later takes the initiative to use her knowledge to better her peers at Monticello.

[7] She is able to blatantly win Thomas Jefferson's affections and remains devoted to him until death, despite having her freedom. It is Sally whom Jefferson spends his final moments with, and it is Sally that he spared from the auction block. Jefferson makes clear that maltreatment of Sally is unacceptable, and we see her eventual acceptance or tolerance by higher members of society and Jefferson's own family. The relationship seems more reciprocal and, thus, more respectable and human.

[8] This Sally is also more empowered and self-righteous. Whereas the Sally in Jefferson in Paris endures a slap by Patsy, this Sally refuses to let Patsy keep her out of the home that is rightfully hers. She does not tolerate rumors of Jefferson being involved with another woman and travels to Washington to assert her place. She does not dote on Jefferson like the former Sally but, rather, tells him what will happen -- she will have her freedom, her son Thomas will leave Monticello, Jefferson's affections will be monogamous.

[9] All of these factors contribute to the sense that this Sally is "whiter." She is enlightened, socially adept, and pleasing to look at, and does not have the superstitious and capricious flightiness of the aforementioned Sally. She is assertive and articulate, and capable of becoming her partner's equal. It is arguable that this Sally renders the tale more palatable and thus more effective, since she is inherently more respectable and easier to identify with.

[10] 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"? (see comment by Emre Turan)

[11] Perhaps.

[12] However, writer Tina Andrews was able to reach an audience of millions and make known to them the story of Sally Hemings, regardless of minor fabrication. Sally Hemings: An American Scandal made millions of Americans aware of this omission in the historical record, albeit through an appeal to emotions. In a society that has had a difficult time accepting an African American president, perhaps this was the first necessary step. As a black female herself, Andrews made a conscious decision in her portrayal of Sally Hemings. By compromising historical exactness and making the tale more sensational and emotional, she was able to affect a larger and more engrossed audience.


Erin Wildeman (Nov. 2009)

In Jefferson in Paris, the relationship between Jefferson and Maria Cosway is a main focal point throughout the majority of the movie. It is interesting that Maria Cosway appears very minimally in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal and the relationship is barely hinted at. If we take the Sally that is portrayed in Jefferson in Paris, it seems very unclear as to why Jefferson would have picked her over the beautiful and refined Maria Cosway. Maria seems like the ideal woman for Jefferson -- the type of woman that he would normally fall for. The scene that best highlights the relationship and differences between the two women in Jefferson in Paris is the garden scene (chapter 10, 1:49). In this scene the "unrefined" Sally is emphasized. She is picking corn and fulfilling other slave duties. When Sally and Maria speak, the different levels of education are apparent. Sally speaks like a slave with a deep southern accent, while Maria has full command over her language, like Jefferson, and speaks much more properly. Also, Maria's mannerisms are more refined than Sally's. For instance, when they are eating the corn, Maria is apprehensive about eating without utensils, and Sally stands awkwardly licking her fingers. Furthermore, outside of the scene, Maria is a talented musician and artist and is a woman of the church. Yet, despite all of this, Jefferson still picks Sally over Maria.

Emre Turan (Nov. 2009)

Sometimes it is acceptable to make minor fabrications for rating purposes in a TV series or movie. However, it is not acceptable to change the story of an American President with his slave in an anachronistic way. As Gorman points out in her essay, representing Sally as a powerful woman even in public is a total delusion that turns the harsh reality into a love story. It is really hard to imagine Sally behaving like Jefferson's wife in public when the conditions of the time are considered. The scene in which Sally pours the water onto the table at a presidential dinner is an obvious symbol of how far off the movie is from history and reality. No matter how much Jefferson loved Sally, she was his slave according to the public and he did not want to reveal his love towards her. Even though I do not think either of the movies represents the history fully and truly, the Jefferson in Paris movie is a lot closer to reality as we understand it. Jefferson in Paris is a good representation of love between a slave and a master in the 18th century. It is a good representation of a naïve girl at the age of sixteen. It is a good representation of Jefferson as a master in love with his slave.

Sabrina Velazquez (Nov. 2009)

Gorman gives a very detailed and accurate look at the two films about Sally Hemings and the differences between the two versions of Sally. One thing I found troubling, however, is when she says "Sally continues to assert her position as his slave" in the Jefferson in Paris film. Gorman says that Sally does this when she unbuckles Jefferson's shoe and in other small scenes throughout the film. I did not necessarily get this feeling from Sally in the film. She acted like a slave at times, this is true, but that was just her role. Sally was a slave. When she unbuckles Jefferson's shoes, I thought it seemed as if she was trying to be more of a wife or a lover than a slave. She looks up at him affectionately, and he looks back at her with a gentle, caring look in his eyes also. I think that was what we were meant to see here. Not Sally acting out of duty, but out of love. As for the rest of Gorman's comparison between the two slaves, I completely agree with the way she believes the slaves were characterized. Sally in Jefferson in Paris is much weaker, more submissive, and less of an equal than the Sally in the Sally Hemings: An American Scandal film.