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

Papa Jefferson

By Catherine Willard

[1] Tina Andrews’ Sally Hemings: An American Scandal attempts to portray the apparent 38-year relationship between American Forefather Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings that resulted in several children. How did screenwriter Andrews, an African American woman, imagine Jefferson’s relation to those children? Although there are several scenes throughout the movie that show Jefferson interacting with his children, this scene after the birth of their first child is by far the most intriguing cinematically and perhaps the most telling emotionally.

[2] Andrews was certainly aware of the 1873 memoir by Madison Hemings, Sally’s son, that identifies Jefferson as the father of Sally’s children and contains the only comment we have about his relationship to them. Madison wrote that Jefferson “was uniformly kind to all about him. He was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us children. We were the only children of his by a slave woman.” By contrast, Madison goes on to say that Jefferson “was affectionate toward his white grandchildren, of whom he had fourteen, twelve of whom lived to manhood and womanhood.” It is easy to speculate about why Jefferson withheld affection from his illegitimate children: he may have been embarrassed that he had children by a woman deemed “inferior” because of the color of her skin, ashamed that his family disapproved of the children, worried that it would affect his political status, or scared that this would be a detriment to his credibility as a Founding Father of the United States. But the bottom line is that Madison’s comment about Jefferson’s lack of visible affection for his slave children is the only mention on the historical record about his relationship with them.

[3] The sequence of scenes that culminate in Jefferson’s visit to Sally and baby Tom on the night of his birth foreshadows the relationship that he has with Hemings and their children during the course of the film. The bell tolls as Monticello shares the news of a new addition to the plantation. Jefferson steps outside of his doors with a look on his face that indicates pride, but that pride is immediately hidden once he sees the reaction of the two family members that are standing beside him. Jefferson recognizes that he is the father of Hemings’ baby but knows that he will be unable to recognize these children outwardly in public as his own. He understands the consequences that his actions will have both socially and politically. Instead of going out to her quarters to see her, Jefferson clears his throat, as if to refocus himself from his excitement, and then reenters in the house while the others tend to Sally and the baby. Andrews (and director Charles Haid) make it seem as if there is hidden happiness on Jefferson’s part that is not reflected until the three are behind closed doors in the dark of night.

[4] This second portion of this sequence is shot from an angle that gives the viewer a profile view of Hemings lying in bed that night with the baby on her chest. The baby is lively and moving around as he lies on his mother’s breast. Jefferson enters the room blurry and out of focus and approaches the bed. Cinematically, this is interesting. Haid and Andrews want the viewers to focus on Hemings as she lies in bed with her newborn. The firelight only enhances the stark contrast between the shadowy black that covers her face and the brightly-lit, incredibly white baby that is moving around on her chest. Hemings, clearly in focus but covered in a shadow that hides her face, lays motionless and does not even acknowledge Jefferson’s presence. As Jefferson sits down next to her, Hemings’ eyes remain clearly diverted and certainly far from his. He leans in to kiss her, and the viewer can notice the ever-so-slight movement of her face away from his lips. Hemings’ lack of acknowledgement indicates her sadness and disappointment in Jefferson. Andrews wrote the scene to illustrate Jefferson’s willingness to show love and affection to his mistress and newborn only behind closed doors and in the dark of night. It is clear that, otherwise, he has no interest in acknowledging or is unable to acknowledge them in public.

[5] Thus, in this sequence of scenes, Andrews’ Jefferson acts in accordance with his characterization by Madison Hemings: he shows no outward affection to the child or his mother. Sally Hemings’ reaction to the new baby in this scene is also interesting and seems to be the reverse of the how Jefferson reacts. When the baby is first born, Hemings is excited, as everyone, slaves and Jefferson family members alike, come to the slave quarters to visit her. She is overjoyed at the birth of her son and welcomes all to see him. However, later that night in the scene in which Jefferson approaches her bedside, it could not be any more apparent that she wants nothing to do to him. As Jefferson reaches to touch her face, there is a slight movement from Hemings away from Jefferson. He is kind and soothing, but she offers no words and refrains from making any sort of gesture or movement toward him. She cannot even bring her eyes to meet his. The writing and the direction here communicate to the viewer Hemings’ understanding that her children will always be treated as inferior, no matter how white their skin appears, and despite the fact that they are the children of Thomas Jefferson.

[6] Sally Hemings: An American Scandal is just one example of the controversial representation of the romantic relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. But the more intriguing question lies in the way that he treated the children that they had together. In the public eye, Jefferson never acknowledged the relationship that he had with Hemings and therefore neglected to treat his illegitimate children like the white children he had from his marriage. It is difficult to know the dynamics of the relationships between Jefferson and his illegitimate children, but Tina Andrews makes it clear that she interprets his actions toward Hemings and their children to be neglectful and dispassionate. As much as this movie shows the hardships of a forbidden relationship, it also depicts the untold story of Jefferson’s children as they struggle with their identity. Andrews uses her reel power to ratify and intensify the almost non-existent facts of the real history.