Sally Hemings (2000)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

   

Historians speculate on the rumored romance between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. Most institutions teach that there was an affair and numerous children resulted, while others believe the children were actually those of Thomas' brother. This Hallmark film chooses to believe there was a relationship between the president and his slave. It's surprisingly watch able but a little overlong in its span.

 

The half-daughter of a plantation owner through an alliance with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings (Carmen Ejogo) is content with her life at Monticello. Then comes word that the Jeffersons in Paris need the presence of more servants and her mother insists on sending her, because in France slavery does not exist. While attending his daughter Polly (Jessica Townsend), Sally attracts the attention of Thomas (Sam Neil). Enthralled with her quiet beauty, which reminds him very much of his dead wife, the formidable American icon gradually enters an intimate relationship with his slave. When riots and impending revolution expel them from Paris, Sally chooses to accompany Thomas back to America. Over the years that follow, her relationship and subsequent bearing of children becomes a scandal that the Jeffersons cannot afford.

 

Ambitious and slanderous reporters have gotten wind of the "pale negroes" at Monticello, and intend to use it to impede Thomas' run for the presidency. Sally must also contend with the disapproval of Thomas' eldest daughter, Martha (Mare Winningham). Her status as official mistress of the congressman and the mother of his many children has elevated her beyond the state of a normal servant, but Martha attempts in every way to manipulate and humiliate her. Thomas refuses to sell Sally or her children to save his campaign, and the two often violently clash over the rights he penned into the constitution concerning the equality of all men. Eventually the story travels into his later years and covers his bankruptcy and ruination, but for the most part it's a long-lasting love story. I have not read enough historical accounts to make an accurate judgment on whether or not the rumors surrounding this alleged affair are true, but the film has consideration for its audience and handles the circumstances with respect.

 

It has become natural in recent years for writers to cast dirt on the founding fathers, but this script makes Thomas extremely likable (then again, it could be Sam Neil's eloquent portrayal) and implies that he had a long-lasting and true love for Sally. That had not the color of her skin been an impediment, that he would have happily married her. The affair is implied in many ways but never shown intimately. Sally wakes up beside him on occasion, and they are shown kissing and flirting with one another. Another man in the household makes overtures and forces her to kiss him. One of the slaves also tries to persuade her to marry him, using violence to shake "sense" into her. He pushes her against a tree and holds her there. Language is minimal but there is some slave violence. Sally aids slaves in escaping up the river and is caught returning from one such expedition by enraged plantation owners, who take her into the barn, hang her by the wrists from the rafters, and brutally whip her (implied but not shown). We see most of her bare back in the preceding scene, and the bloody wounds afterward. A woman speaks of intending to leave her husband for Thomas, who spends time in her presence.

 

I felt the movie was a little too long, but then I enjoy the younger years of historical characters much more than the older ones. This somewhat detracted from the enjoyment of the film for me. It's not a remarkable production by any means, but nor is it particularly offensive. It's worth watching if you're interested in the era.