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Films >> Jefferson in Paris (1995) >>

"I ain't scared of you, Massa."

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Thomas Jefferson was American minister to Paris from 1784-1789, the period leading up to the French Revolution. Our future third president, our American in Paris, defends democracy, snarls at the effete Old World aristocracy, comments on the nearing upheaval, but – most importantly – falls in love. Upper-class France and the revolution might provide a sense of spectacle for the film, but they are clearly of secondary importance to a focus on Jefferson’s love life. In the first part of the film Jefferson’s attention is riveted on the elegant and married Maria Cosway, a woman who sweeps his heart away from his head so far that he will break a vow to his dead wife, make a vow to take Maria to Monticello, and injure himself in a gesture of amatory exuberance. Halfway through the film, however, Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s fifteen-year-old beauty of a slave from Virginia, makes her first appearance in visual history, and the down-to-earth Sally gradually eclipses the angelic Maria. The tale turns nasty, however, when Sally becomes pregnant and, with her feisty brother James as advocate, the Hemings siblings declare they will remain free in France rather than return to Monticello as slaves. But, in a tense conclusion, Jefferson cuts a deal in which James and Sally will return to America in return for freeing James there and freeing Sally’s children there at age twenty-one. There was a real Maria Cosway with whom Jefferson was romantically entangled in Paris, there was a real Sally Hemings who came to Paris as the companion of Jefferson’s daughter Polly, and the real children of the real Sally Hemings were all freed by the real Jefferson. But that there was a sexual/love relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, that she got pregnant in Paris and ultimately had those several children by him, was in 1995 still fiercely denied by Jefferson defenders. Thus, Jefferson in Paris actively participates in the flow of historical revisionism that would climax in 1998 with DNA studies virtually establishing Jefferson as the father of one of Hemings’s children, even going so far as framing the story with the much-disputed account of Sally’s son Madison, the source for the relationship believers.