Sally Hemings: An American Scandal – earnest attempt to flesh out Thomas Jefferson / Sally Hemings affair

Charles Haid, “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal” (2000)

More notable for the performances of its lead actors Carmen Ejogo as Sally Hemings and Sam Neill as Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and one of the signatories to the US Declaration of Independence, this television mini-series attempts to put flesh on the bones of the relationship the famous leader had with his much younger slave mistress based on the scanty historical information that is available about their affair and on what is generally known of American society of their time (late 18th century / early 19th century). The film is essentially a romantic fictional drama, told in conventional chronological order mostly from Sally’s point of view, that ties together the bits and pieces that are known about the affair,¬†why Sally stayed so long with Jefferson and how the affair reflects the contradictions between Jefferson the idealist and Jefferson the all-too human gentleman farmer / landowner / slave-master.

The film opens when Sally is a young teenager accompanying Jefferson’s two daughters Martha (Mare Winningham) and Polly to France in 1788. Jefferson was the US ambassador to France at the time. Jefferson is already a widower and viewers come to learn that Sally and Jefferson’s dead wife Martha were half-sisters and that Martha and Jefferson inherited Sally and her mother Betty Hemings (Diahann Carroll) along with the Monticello farm and the other slaves working there. While in France, Sally learns to speak French and to read in both English and French. Some time during her stay in France, she and Jefferson begin their affair. Over the next 38 years, Jefferson and Sally were to stay together and their relationship produced six children of whom four survived to adulthood; three of the four children successfully passed as white people and married into white society. The affair weathered public exposure and disapproval – the notion of slave-owners keeping slave women as mistresses wasn’t unusual but such affairs were usually kept discreet – and Jefferson’s post-presidential life during which he was burdened with debts and bankruptcy, and with regret that he did not campaign more strongly against slavery as president or free his slaves when he should have.

Viewers will not learn very much about Jefferson’s achievements in public office or what else he did that made him highly regarded during his life-time and which his daughter Martha was anxious to protect. The first half of the mini-series is rather awkward and unsure, and the fragmented time-line it follows is partly to blame. Only during the last stretch of the film in which the aged Jefferson decides to found a university but struggles with funding it while fighting off debtors at the same time, and Sally tries to maintain Monticello to a respectable standard, does it become compelling watching. The warm affection between Jefferson and Sally is obvious but there is always the ever-present worry that once Jefferson is dead, Sally will be denied her rightful inheritance (that is, her freedom) by Martha.

The film could have been much better and stronger in its focus and direction had the drama been framed differently. Since much of what we know about Sally and Jefferson comes from their descendants, the narrative could have been structured as a series of flashbacks based on Madison Hemings’ 1873 interview and his brother Eston’s memoir. Sally’s children could have been more significant characters and their lives after Jefferson’s death could have been described in a way so as to throw light on how freed slaves were able to integrate into mainstream white society and the problems and discrimination they faced. As it is, the film throws up half-baked episodes of Sally’s life that might or might not have occurred.

The affair might have been better treated as a documentary with fictional re-enactments of events in Sally and Jefferson’s life together. Not enough is known about Hemings that the film should have taken the liberty to portray her as a “strong black woman / mother” stereotype simply to feed a socially liberal audience’s expectations. Within the film’s own parameters, I feel not enough is made of Sally’s decision to return to Monticello in 1789 as a slave and not to stay in revolutionary France as a free woman, and the regrets she might have had over that decision.

I must say though that Neill and Ejogo are excellent in portraying Jefferson and Sally respectively over the near-40 years they spent together: Neill plays a conflicted and hypocritical Jefferson very well, and Ejogo carries off both a teenage and a mature Sally. Mare Winningham is another notable actor with her portrayal of Jefferson’s daughter Martha, though the conflict between her and Sally reduce her to a prim stereotype that does injustice to her attempts to preserve Monticello and keep her father’s debtors at bay. These three actors¬†maintain the drama’s energy and spark and are very much all it has going for it.