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Films >> Jefferson in Paris (1995) >>

Jefferson in Paris was written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who, as her wikipedia entry tells us, “is a Booker prize-winning novelist, short story writer, and two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter. . . . perhaps best known for her long collaboration with Merchant Ivory Productions,” whose films have won six Academy Awards. Jhabvala and director James Ivory follow the lead of Fawn Brodie’s 1974 ground-breaking biography of Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History) in accepting as fact that Jefferson began a long-term relationship with his slave Sally Hemings in Paris. The film even gives primacy to the narrative of Sally’s son Madison, the source for belief in the relationship, framing the film with the newspaper interview in 1873 that first put the Hemings side of the story on record. Prior to Brodie historians had vigorously defended the man who said we are all created equal against charges of miscegenation, but the Merchant Ivory team recognized its role in historical revisionism and seemed proud of it: "We didn't set out to point a finger at this guy who is [America's] hero," said Ivory, but, completing the thought, “what is the point of having a hero who is godlike?" chimed in producer Israel Merchant. Controversial DNA tests published in 1998 for all intents and purposes “convicted” Jefferson of fathering Sally’s children in the popular mind, but the issue was still emotionally raw enough in 1995 to earn the film harsh criticism for violating historical fact and slandering a revered president. Even if one accepts that Jefferson and Hemings had a relationship, there are no details about it and virtually none about her on the historical record. Therefore, virtually everything about the relationship in the film is Jhabvala’s invention. And it is important to point out that Jhabvala’s characterization of Sally as a passive, pathetic pickanniny is the polar opposite of that found in Barbara Chase-Riboud’s immensely popular 1979 novel Sally Hemings, the only other in-depth prior representation of her. Chase-Riboud’s Sally -- a strong, sensitive, and even tragic figure -- is a source of the sole other film depicting the relationship, the post-DNA television mini-series, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000).