Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

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

Sally in the Middle

By Jose Berrios

[1] The “exodus” scene in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal distorts the actual history of the slave sale. Jefferson's slaves in fact were sold after his death, thus writer Tina Andrews aimed to depict another side of Jefferson through this change. As much as the film hopes to shed light on the history of Jefferson's relationship, first and foremost the film is a drama. To change this fact is to change Sally and Jefferson's relationship and add another dramatic element to the film. The selling of the slaves while Jefferson is alive marks another chapter in their relationship, and the audience must observe and react to the consequences that arise for Jefferson's political/economic life and his relationship with Sally and other family members. This scene also serves as another wound in their long relationship. Sally and Jefferson have overcome many obstacles in their life together. Now they must heal from the biggest blow yet, the separation and breakdown of their family.

[2] There are three important facets of the exodus scene: its political and economic importance, the uncertainty of the slaves' future, and the morality concerning Jefferson's actions. The audience also observes another obstacle in the seemingly impossible relationship between Jefferson and Sally. Their personal lives become intertwined with society's demands and the public reputation of Jefferson as a politician.

[3] The exodus scene is a powerful moment of real American history as the audience sees the monetary value of Jefferson’s slaves outweigh their familial value. While the slave residents of Monticello were living a dream other slaves could not believe, their sale here is profound and real. Monticello is no more the safe haven for slaves under a benevolent master depicted earlier in the film. Rather, political and economic motives push Jefferson towards selling them. The cinematography depicting the “exodus” is actually raw and dehumanizing. The slaves move grimly and heavily away from their home like cattle to slaughter. The single-file line the slaves walk demonstrates the cold, calculated, and mechanical decision by Jefferson. The audience has already been suspicious of Jefferson's actions and beliefs toward slavery, especially in his political writings. Now the slaves have become an option for a better economic future. In defense of Jefferson, however, the problem of sustaining Monticello is one that develops over time. Martha has warned Jefferson of the amount needed to keep Monticello. He goes through selling his beloved books and still goes bankrupt. The real and reel collide as the scene depicts not only Jefferson’s financial woes but also the real exchange of slaves for labor and money, a system built on the exploitation of those considered inferior.

[4] In context, the auction occurs before the exodus, a smart and emotional cinematic move by Tina Andrews and director Charles Haid. We assume the new masters of the slaves will not be as loving as Jefferson and are left to wonder and worry about their future. The exodus walk captures the feelings of uncertainty. The music builds this tension; its dramatic score evokes audience emotions on the fate of the slaves. We feel the devastation brought on them, and we dread their future along with them. Suddenly the slaves do not have an identity as they are essentially herded off. They become a commodity just as their status implies, unlike their prior identity with Monticello as a home, not a place of work and exploitation. The familiar slave midwife who triumphantly presents “Thomas Jefferson Hemings” to the world earlier in the story speaks for the slaves -- “Why, why?” she groans as the tide of misery carries her away. She speaks for the audience too. The slaves have only loved the Jefferson family. They do not understand why they must leave. We share their anger, sadness, fear, and confusion. We too ask why.

[5] Jefferson's morality is severely questioned at this climactic point in the film. His public and personal life divide. Economics forces him to consider his humanitarian values. Though Jefferson has been kind to his slaves, Sally has revealed to us his racist views in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Does he really have no choice but to sell them? The shot of Jefferson viewing the exodus from his study within Monticello creates a dramatic moment of complete separation between him and the slaves. He remains in the haven of Monticello that the sale will enable him to “enjoy,” at least for a while. Morally, we see the split between Jefferson and Sally, who is outside Monticello, in-between the motionless Jefferson and the departing slaves, on the front-line of the grief generated by the sale. Sally is our source of emotion and connection, starkly staggered by the attempt to absorb the harrowing question “why?” Interestingly, though Jefferson makes the decision to sell them, it is Sally who most visibly registers the emotional and moral consequences of selling off the slave community. Through her we sense the trauma of families breaking apart.