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

Breaux, Kia Shant. "Letter from America: Slave Girl Descendants Battle to Join the Jeffersons." Birmingham Post 14 February 2000: 10.
In conjunction with the showing of this film, Breaux informs readers of the struggle by Hemings' descendants to join the Monticello Association, a 700-member group of Jefferson descendants. Breaux is critical of the organization's resistance to admitting Hemings' descendants after DNA evidence nearly guarantees that they are offspring of Jefferson, and she even considers the possibility that this resistance is just a form of racism. Breaux relates the opinion of Association member Lucian Truscott, who believes that admitting the Hemings is the "beginning of racial healing, not just for [the Jefferson] family, but for the rest of the nation."
Brennan, Patricia. "A President's Love Story." Washington Post 13 February 2000: Y06.
This movie is extremely intriguing because it exposes the secret life of a brilliant president. Andrews, the writer, insists that "everything that's in the movie is based on a true incident or the principals themselves. It was a 38-year relationship. . . . There was some sort of emotion and monogamy between these two people. If he could have, I believe in my heart of hearts he would have married Sally Hemings." Producer Anderson further describes Jefferson as "a man who's tremendously conflicted. We've never seen the human side of Thomas Jefferson, with frailties like the rest of us. That's the story we set out to make." Altogether, Brennan believes this movie accurately portrays the relationship between Sally and Jefferson in a plausible way.
Brown, DeNeen L. "Labor of Love; 'Sally Hemings' Writer Adds Romance to the History." Washington Post 12 February 2000: C01.
Brown interviews writer Tina Andrews. Since youth, Andrews has seen the unjust side of racism. Andrews was kicked out of a diner for sharing a milkshake with a fellow dancer who happened to be white. Andrews was fired as an actress for sharing an on-screen kiss with a white man. With this movie, she hopes that people might think differently about the lines created by race. Black blood. White blood. White people walking around thinking they are white, until they find out that somewhere way back when, one of the good relatives was black. Black people walking around thinking black power, suffering all the slights of society, when they have white blood in their veins. Race doesn't matter. There is no pure race. This is what Tina Andrews's movie argues.
Clinton, Catherine. "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal." Journal of American History 87.3 (2000): 1151.
"The Hemings project, however flawed, was an all-too-rare moment of historical reflection on network television--one that raised questions about slavery, about sex, about race, and, finally, about history's responsibility to those intersecting issues." Clinton has only positive comments regarding Tina Andrew's film. As a scholar, she was worried she would be bothered by the overwhelming historical innaccuracies that are sacrificed to the necessary dramatic appeal of television, but she found herself sitting at the edge of her seat generally curious about the portrayal of this relationship. "If Hemings and Jefferson did have the intimate connection DNA evidence suggested, what was the nature of that relationship?" "Sam Neill's ability to invest Jefferson with some character and motivation wiped out the unpleasant memory of Nick Nolte's impersonation in Jefferson in Paris. And I was pleasantly surprised that, despite the dance over the initial encounter of Hemings and Jefferson, the film highlights a facet of this attraction supported by historical evidence: Sally Hemings was the half sister of Jefferson's deceased wife." "The portrait of Jefferson's nephews, the Carr brothers, as despicable yet respectable exemplars of white southern manhood rang all too true. And although by the end of the program I was not sure whether I felt sorrier for Patsy Jefferson, with her howling fool of a husband and nearly a dozen children, or Mare Winningham (who had to play her), there were stirring moments of authenticity within this portrait of a white southern woman." "Despite the hyped-up plot twists that owe more to the requisites of the teleplay than to historical evidence (Sally helping fugitive slaves, Sally being whipped by a vengeful overseer, etc., etc.), this fictionalized portrait of famed and infamous caught in slavery's skin allowed millions of American viewers to ponder, if only for a night or two, the ambivalence slavery created for all Americans and its legacy for us today."
Deggans, Eric. "A blot on his sacred honor?" St. Petersburg Times 13 February 2000: 1f.
This film is "an exemplar of America's deep conflicts about race in the hand of its black author," but it's "strictly Hollywood, not history." In order to appeal to their older female viewers, CBS made "the story coat [the Jefferson-Heming] 38-year relationship in the rosy glow of a made-for-TV tearjerker." Researchers on the relationship have found that "nobody knows beans about their day-to-day relationship," and thus the series, while containing some truth, is more of "a lousy soap opera with historical names." All in all, writer Andrews certainly brought the issue of the scandal into full view. "The very least white America can do is acknowledge that there was this black woman with this white man." Whether or not the miniseries reveals the truth about Jefferson and Sally, Andrews is "an advocate of truth being like cream. Sooner or later, it's going to rise to the top."
Gilbert, Matthew. "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal." Boston Globe 12 February 2000: F3.
This film "is a bold envisioning of history that feels more like a torrid romance novel than a glimpse of one of the country's most controversial alliances." Many of the movie's images "look like they could provide covers for trashy paperbacks." Neill's Jefferson is "morally questionable" in regards to his possessiveness with Hemings but also appears to be "sympathetic in his love for her." Ejogo's Sally is better as she gets older -- "once she is no longer required to play an unbelievably assertive young slave, her portrayal of Hemings matures into a more appealing ambivalent heroine who is choosing her fate out of love." Gilbert praises the film by calling attention to the questioning of Jefferson's hypocrisy. "Sally Hemings is a slight improvement on the tedious Jefferson in Paris, which stubbornly avoided the significance of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings."
Goodale, Gloria. "News and fiction meet in retelling of 'Scandal'." Christian Science Monitor 11 February 2000: 18.
This TV mini-series hit a bit of luck when two weeks before the airing, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation gave way to the DNA testing of both Hemings and Jefferson descendants and supported the fact that a male Jefferson fathered at least one Hemings child. Many of the Jefferson descendants push the view that another male relative of Jefferson's was the father. Many facts, however, point exclusively to Thomas Jefferson. Still, with all the proof from Jefferson's life confirming him as the father of Heming's children, not one word from Sally was ever documented and very few facts about her life are known. However, "Every single thing that happened to Sally Hemings that is in the historical record is in the movie," says writer Andrews. "What I had to do is emotionally connect those dots." The movie opens up discussion about our third president whose actions and words followed two very different paths. "[We're] taking the position that this is a 200-year-old lie that's been held in the bosom of Americans," says executive producer Craig Anderson. "It's not been exposed until now."
Graeber, Laurel. "Some Truths Are Not So Self-Evident." New York Times 13 February 2000: 13:59.
The DNA evidence drove Tina Andrews to produce the miniseries. Andrews wanted to portray the affair though the point of view of an African American woman. The series took a while to produce due to hesitation in "sullying the image of a great American icon." Andrews wanted to show the public that this was a love story and that interracial love is possible. Andrews "updated" their relationship by having the characters reveal their feelings, because she says she doesn't "think back then people talked about their feelings as much." So in order to attract her audience, Andrews brings the characters to life.
Heisler, Bob. "Slave of Love." Daily News [New York] 13 February 2000: 6.
Tina Andrews claims that the love between Jefferson and Hemings can easily be proved since she "gave up [her] freedom and returned with Jefferson to slavery in America." The movie was pitched to CBS a week before the DNA testing of Jefferson's descendants became public. "Not since 'Roots' has the harshness, violence and daily oppression of slavery -- even at the relatively enlightened Monticello -- received such prime-time treatment." Andrews' personal genealogy generated her vision of the Jefferson-Hemings "controversy" as a love story, and her experience in engaging in "one of the first interracial kisses on daytime TV" influenced how she presented the love relationship to the audience. Andrews counters the notion that the film defames the image of Thomas Jefferson: "the poor man had the right to be in love with anyone. That, to me, does not sully the image of the great American icon."
Irvine, Reed. "Media Falsely Portray Jefferson's Relationship with His Slave." Insight on the News 20 March 2000: 45.
The motives for the production of this TV series were flawed. The series was produced in order to gain back public support on the matter of the apparent Jefferson/Hemings scandal. The series was produced after the DNA test results were published in Nature saying "Jefferson fathered one of the sons, Eston Hemings" and, more importantly, after the magazine had to revoke this claim as not entirely accurate. All the DNA tests proved was that someone in the Jefferson line, seven potential males, fathered Eston Hemings. The series shows little regard for historical accuracies and scientific tests. Furthermore, the relationship, as portrayed in the series, seems egregious.
James, Caryn. "A Founding Father and Perhaps the Mother." New York Times 11 February 2000: E29.
The film "never lets details interfere with its generic sentimental romance, its simplistic interpretation of one of the most complex, fascinating liaisons in American history," and all "its heavy-handed historical references can't disguise the film's soap-opera soul." This becomes a problem because although the film is "solidly directed and prettily shot" and "asserts an undeniable pull," Tina Andrews' "mawkish script" leaves out the legend and history her characters carry. "Instead of making its case for true love between Jefferson and Hemings, the mini-series willfully posits the idea, then reduces the characters to anachronistic clichés," leaving us to think of how a more substantial script would have improved the film. James's final gripe is about the issue of fiction distorting fact at the end with Sally's letter declaring her freedom. It "ends with a howler" that will alert historians by bringing "the concept of smart women, foolish choices, to an entirely new level."
King, Florence. "The misanthrope's corner." National Review 3 April 2000: 60.
"It arrived on television with almost no fanfare, did well enough but broke no ratings records, inspired no agonized debates, and raised no fears of ensuing riots." King is surprised that no one seems to care about the film. She compares this premiere to the premiere of Roots, when every single person seemed to be watching, when "news shows ran footage of grimfaced patrons in Harlem bars watching the whipping scene," when everyone was consumed by it. In this case, no one seems to care, and all have accepted it as fact. "It might be our notorious attention span: Having taken in the original DNA news, we are now in 'been there, done that' mode." Perhaps the public was so willing to accept this mini-series because "This is deja vu at its stun-gun best." Not too long before there had been the Clinton scandal. But maybe it's because in the 21st century seeing a black man and white woman in bed together isn't shocking. In any case, everyone accepts this controversy as fact, because, as we all know, "It's on TV, therefore it is."
Kuklenski, Valerie. "Tale of forbidden love American hero." The Gazette [Montreal] 13 February 2000: C6.
"Guys, it was 38 years," she said. "If it was only sex, he'd have moved on to another woman on the plantation." This quote from the writer of the mini-series, Tina Andrews, explains one of the main points of view that is shared by many supporters of the existence of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. Kuklenski makes note of the fact that "sure, it's a two-night sweeps-period special that may be enjoyed or criticized for its soap-opera story elements and the romance-novel look of its publicity photos," but at the very least it is a centuries old controversy on "conflicting ‘truths' about this very underdocumented aspect of Jefferson's life." Although there isn't much direct evidence of a love affair between Jefferson and Hemings (the Jefferson Foundation's own investigation, however, fell in line with the DNA tests), such as letters or journals, "Andrews found her premise in circumstantial proof," like the quote above leading off the review. Even star Sam Neill said the relationship had to be based on some sort of mutual affection because "after he [Jefferson] died and she was freed and she lived quite a ways from Monticello, she walked up that hill every week and tended his grave . . . you don't do that for someone whose memory you don't hold dear. She would never have gone back." Kuklenski supports the serious possibility that the history books need to be rewritten, because, in Neill's words, Jefferson "was a widower for many years. You can't just sort of read Ovid for the rest of your life."
Mink, Eric. "'Hemings' Flubs Story of Confounding Father." Daily News [New York] 11 February 2000: 134.
The Jefferson/Hemings relationship does not have the factual basis that Jefferson's ownership of slaves or his views on African Americans has. Instead, "The film uses what executive producer Craig Anderson has called 'reasonable conjecture' to construct a loving, albeit wildly conflicted, marriage-like relationship between them." It is clearly a fictional film based on some small historical facts: "Only a foolish viewer would accept the film's invented scenes, concocted situations and personalities, and made-up dialogue, as historical truth." However, it is irksome to see scenes that end up looking like "comedy sketches" instead of a serious representation of a historical controversy. "I'm bothered by the film's clumsy moralizing and by the superficiality of the characterizations." This is not the end of the historical butchering, however. "I'm bothered most of all by the film's relentless soap-operafication, which drains the life and value out of a story that could have been the raw material for an entertaining and important miniseries."
Rosenfeld, Megan. "CBS's 'Scandal': Taking Liberties." Washington Post 12 February 2000: C04.
"There is little doubt in the age of DNA testing that our third president, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, had a liaison with his slave Sally Hemings, and that they produced children. But the latest portrayal of their relationship, produced by the fevered imaginations of Hollywood, is simply bunk." Overall the film is well done but not based in fact at all. The production value is very good. As a drama, the plot is good. "The only problem is the basic premise": the film is so inaccurate that it "trivializes the legacy of both central characters." Sally is not even played by an African American, and Jefferson is not even played by an American. There is not much known about Sally Hemings, so one might expect that she would be portrayed using some artistic license, but this film goes over the top. Sally reads Shakespeare, runs an underground railroad, and attends a royal party in Versailles. All of this and more seems extremely unlikely. Her relationship with Jefferson is also incredibly unlikely. She is portrayed as extremely well versed in politics, and she constantly lectures Jefferson. Sally is also the initiator of the relationship. Jefferson is significantly older and he is the master, so it would seem much more likely that he initiated the relationship.
Wickham, DeWayne. "Hemings, Jefferson: No free will, no love." USA Today 1 February 2000: 15A.
It is clear from the start that Wickham does not believe that the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson existed. The scientific proof does not tell "what brought them together," and the "odds are pretty good that it was neither love nor romance." A love relationship was not possible because Sally was held against her free will and had no real choice in the situation. A slave could not possibly "exercise free choice about the sexual contact they have with their oppressors." There is "nothing romantic" about the relationship or the show, Wickham says harshly, and creating the show is the "equivalent of making a purse out of a sow's ear."

See Also

Bianco, Robert. "Soaped-up 'Sally' plays a founding father for a fool." USA Today 11 February 2000: 1E.

Branigin, William. "'When Thomas Met Sally' is no way to view history." Washington Post 20 February 2000: B01.

Curtis, Mary C. "Hemings a Victim Again in Insulting TV Movie." Charlotte Observer 13 February 2000.

Fries, Laura. "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal." Variety 11 February 2000: 34.

Kelleher, Terry. "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal." People Weekly 14 February 2000: 25.

Lord, Lewis. "Peeping at Tom and Sally CBS sees love -- or was it merely sex?" U.S. News & World Report 7 February 2000: 51.

Thompson, Kevin. "Leads Breathe Life, Heart into Jefferson's Illicit Love." Cox News Service 11 February 2000.