One of the questions of history concerns whether Thomas
Jefferson (Nick Nolte) really did have a sexual affair with a teenage (15 years
old) slave Sally Hemmings (Tandie
Newton) that accompanied him to Paris.
The film starts when Madison Hemmings (James Earl
Jones) interviews Polly in Ohio
in 1871 in a rustic winter scene. Madison
mentions that it was against the law (or “subversive”) to teach Negro slaves
literacy skills, out of fear that they could rebel. Discussion about bloodlines ensures, and
whether things unspoken about really happened. They did. Most if the film is
in flashback to Jefferson’s ministry in Paris
in the years leading to the French Revolution. And most of the film deals
with other matters, such as the influence of the American Revolution on the
French. There are plenty of nifty images, such as Jefferson’s
polygraph, a device that kept his manual penmanship in line, or another one
where a toy guillotine is demonstrated on an asparagus stalk (the guillotine
had just been invented). There is an ideological discussion of property
rights, and whether they are inimical to happiness. At the end of the film, Jefferson
would agree to set his own slaves free when he returned, but Sally would stay
It’s important that Jefferson was
already a widower, having lost his wife in childbirth of Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow), as women in that era often died giving birth.
He builds a friendship with Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), who complains that her husband cannot satisfy
her, an implicit statement that her husband was homosexual. So the whole
movie seems to be about the split between public discussions about lofty
ideas about liberty and morality, and the private practice within families,
which is a lot more complicated.
Jefferson (1997, PBS “American Stories”, dir. Ken Burns, 180 min) is an
instructive biography of the Third President that presents troubling facts about
his use of slaves and his attitude about slavery. Jefferson
apparently wrote that “Negroes” were biologically inferior, and claimed body
odor and the sparseness of body hair in adult males (when compared to
Caucasians) as “evidence.” This justified the idea that the patriarchal
master justifies his position by “taking care” of others who have less social
status or (in the beliefs of the time) “ability.” The film goes on to cover Jefferson’s
stay in Paris
and his presidency. See this link for notes about
Burns’s Lewis & Clark film, which involved Jefferson.
I will try to rent and review the 1995 Touchstone film “Jefferson
in Paris.” Blogger.
Jefferson: The View from the Mountain (2004/1995, First Run Features,
Journeyman, various cable networks, dir. Martin Doblmeier),
emphasis on the slavery issue. Blogger.
Thomas Jefferson’s World (2009, Monticello,
16 min) Visitor’s center film. Blogger.