5 June 2009 | gimhoff
Plantation romance, not history
The belief that Thomas Jefferson had a long-standing sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings rests on four grounds: 1) the contemporaneous charges of journalist James Callendar, who smeared members of both political parties, sometimes truthfully and sometimes not, as his allegiances shifted. Callendar's charges were made in viciously racist terms, and they were never directly addressed by Jefferson. Callendar is strikingly portrayed as a snake by Rene Auberjonois in this film. 2) The claim of Madison Hemings, one of Hemings' sons, who first wrote that he and Hemings' other children were fathered by Jefferson in a newspaper interview and then in a short memoir, both written in the 1870's, when he himself was in his seventies, and nearly fifty years after Jefferson's death. 3) DNA testing of the lineal descendants of Eston Hemings, Sally Hemings' youngest child, that showed a familial link to a male Jefferson, but not specifically to Thomas Jefferson. 4) Timetables that show that Thomas Jefferson is the only male Jefferson who can be proved to have been at Monticello around nine months before the births of all of Sally's children. If we make the assumption that all of Sally Hemings' children had the same father, that would tend to show that Jefferson was the father of all of them. Each of these, by itself, proves nothing; even taken together they aren't conclusive proof. But they certainly are suggestive.
What is more important in judging stories about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is that we know practically nothing about the nature of the relationship between them. Hemings left no papers; Jefferson wrote nothing about her. Madison wrote that Sally went to France as a companion to Jefferson's daughter Maria when he was the US ambassador; that she and Maria stayed eighteen months, during which Sally became pregnant with Jefferson's child. "She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promise, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia." He wrote that these promises were kept: "He (Jefferson) 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. He was affectionate toward his white grandchildren, of whom he had fourteen, twelve of whom lived to manhood and womanhood." He also wrote that, "We were permitted to stay about the 'great house,' and only required to do such light work as going on errands. Harriet learned to spin and to weave in a little factory on the home plantation. We were free from the dread of having to be slaves all our lives long, and were measurably happy. We were always permitted to be with our mother, who was well used. It was her duty, all her life which I can remember, up to the time of father's death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, look after us children and do such light work as sewing, and Provision was made in the will of our father that we should be free when we arrived at the age of 21 years."
Assuming this is all true (and the movie doesn't stick to even this much) everything else about their relationship is invented. Were Sally and Thomas tender and loving partners over several decades, was Thomas a mean and ruthless exploiter of a vulnerable slave, or did they both have what was just a practical arrangement? Nobody knows, so we all bring to their relationship our own prejudices, wishes, and hopes. It's a mirror, and what we see in it is ourselves, not any historic fact. What is written and filmed about them is a "plantation romance," whether it is of the whips and chains variety like Mandingo and parts of this movie, or whether it is more hopeful that love could overcome the institution of slavery, as are other parts of this movie.
As to the movie itself, it has a serviceable script and is well filmed by TV mini-series standards, and its four-hour length doesn't seem too long. Its main advantages are that Neill and Ejogo provide two good lead performances and that Ejogo is a world-class beauty. Its only distracting flaw is the excessive and quite noticeable make-up jobs on all the actors who are supposed to be elderly. In sum, it's worth watching if you're interested in the subject and don't think that movies tell the truth about historical characters.