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

Let’s Give a Hand to Mr. Jefferson

By James "Alec" Murphy

[1] While during the years of American slavery it was not unusual for white masters to have sexual relationships with their female slaves, these relationships still carried a general sentiment of taboo, which typically prohibited them from going public. Since these Caucasian masters had a reputation to uphold, the discussion and rumor-spreading of potential “foul-play” with the negro-race was not something that they would have wanted to deal with. As a result, it comes as a surprise that after the death of his wife, Thomas Jefferson dives head-first into a less than private relationship with his new African servant, Sally Hemings. Even more surprising, however, is the interpretation of Hemings’ and Jefferson’s early interactions by director Charles Haid and writer Tina Andrews in their movie Sally Hemings: An American Scandal. Despite the unavoidable censure Jefferson and Hemings were to receive as a result of their publicly deplored relationship, Haid and Andrews choose to depict the beginnings of their relationship as existing without any type of sexual second-thought, since, from the start, their inter-personal rapport is marked with such a sexually sub-textual undercurrent, it could drown a fish.

[2] When looking at the scene of their first personal dialogue (10:11), one specific choice by Haid and Andrews indicates to the audience Jefferson’s social ambivalence with regard to his personal decisions. That choice is Jefferson’s dialogue. Both suggestive and casual, it is in no way representative of the typical way a master would address his servant. Entering on Hemings’ toying with a gold pocket watch, Jefferson immediately accepts her excuse that she was admiring it and wasn’t stealing it. While this was probably true, he gives it no second thought, and, smiling, tells her “its quite alright.” Without pause, he delivers a “pick-up line,” which, in any other circumstance, would give the woman sure right to burst into laughter. Instead, we see Jefferson abusing the fact that she is his servant, giving him, in reality, the ability to get away with saying whatever he wants. He asks, “Do you know what a mentor means Sally?” Without her response, he continues, “a mentor is a trusted teacher who guides.” As he approaches her, inches away from her face, he adds, “my instincts tell me you have a good mind, worth mentoring.” The sexual sub-text, encouraged by his uncontainable grin, makes the viewer understand that at this moment it is evident that Jefferson has not stumbled upon Sally but has found her, and is beginning the pursuit that, since seeing her for the first time, he has so conceived.

[3] With this in mind, the entirety of their interaction is comically portrayed. Comically, because of how indiscreet this old man is with his young servant (in “real” life she was about fourteen). Now, I might find it humorous because it makes me uncomfortable, but, in reality, would anyone not think that a man who aspires to be the President of the United States should have a little more restraint? His unabashed behavior makes me think that everything he says is most probably false, an abuse of his power, and with no purpose but to get this new negro-servant into his bed. His grin does not give-way as he demands that she take off his coat. Like his grin, the sub-textual undercurrent of the script is persistent, as his demand that she take off his coat is more of an establishment of dominance than an attempt to cool off.

[4] To make matters worse, whenever he turns to face her, suddenly the grin disappears. As if not to unveil his pleasure in this disgusting form of under-age entertainment, he puts back on his cold domineering face to continue his establishment of power. My favorite example of these sordid antics comes when he grips his right wrist and tells her that he slipped on ice last year and that his wrist “just” hasn’t mended properly since (1). Aside from the word “just,” insinuating that he is bs-ing her to the high heavens, it is also a figure of speech used when excusing oneself from future actions. As such, it comes as no surprise that the wrist he asks her to unbutton is the wrist that he hurt, the wrist that in the unbuttoning process does not have to do any work or undergo any stress that would make a hurt wrist hurt more. Instead, this “hurt-wrist” game is just the perfect thing to get his hand in her lap and her undivided attention. (I might add that she never is asked to unbutton his other sleeve, but that might be belaboring the point.)

[5] The bottom line is Haid and Andrews depict Jefferson as an undignified old man, a duplicitous pervert who gives no thought as to how his actions might affect his future. On the contrary, his actions are predisposed as a result of his physical attraction to his servant, and, as this scene implies, his self-respect is secondary to his power of and proximity to the young African servant, Sally Hemings.

(1) The wrist reference is an “in” joke with special pertinence here, since in “real” life Jefferson hurt the wrist indulging in some ill-advised horse-play designed to impress Lady Maria Cosway, the woman who immediately preceded Sally as his lover.