Perhaps Napoleon was right — history is really just a series of agreed upon lies. But instead of trying to set the record straight, “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal,” a four-hour miniseries from executive producer Craig Anderson, takes confirmed evidence of a liaison between Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and turns it into a handsomely produced Harlequin romance.
Under the disclaimer of “historical drama,” Tina Andrews’ script pieces together fact with modern-day rationalizations in an attempt to understand how Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, could write “all men are created equal” yet perpetuate an atrocity like the institution of slavery.
Based in part on the 1981 Jefferson biography by historian Fawn Browdy and propelled by the recent DNA evidence of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship, “Sally Hemings” will certainly garner plenty of attention without offering any real or satisfying explanations.
Instead, Andrews and director Charles Haid take the approach that the Hemings-Jefferson relationship was in fact a love story for the ages, and that Hemings, despite acquiring her freedom at 16 while traveling with Jefferson to France in 1787, was taken by promises from her owner, and chose to return to Monticello, where she — and ultimately her children — would live as slaves.
In what appears to be an effort to compensate for the inherent inequities of the relationship, actor Sam Neill reduces Jefferson to a lovestruck fool who latches on to the young Sally because she looks remarkably like his late wife Martha. (Hemings was in fact, Martha’s half-sister, the result of another owner-slave relationship).
Time and history has afforded Jefferson much leeway in the debate over his contradictory life, especially when his political contributions are weighed against his personal life. However, Neill’s Jefferson is an eccentric, easily distracted man who selfishly indulges his own pursuits while remaining totally ambivalent about the injustice suffered by Sally and her family. His political life is underrepresented here, and serves merely as an excuse to leave his family and his problems behind.
Hemings, played by the beautiful British actress Carmen Ejogo is afforded a little more soul-searching and the mini is noticeably more entertaining when focused on her. Nevertheless, mini would have us believe Sally gave up her freedom in order to stay with the Jefferson, despite the devastating emotional consequences to her brother and children. Still, as the miniseries shows at its end, Hemings tended to Jefferson’s grave until her death.
The magnificent Diahann Carroll shines in her brief appearance as Sally’s mother Betty, the pic’s sole voice of reason. Betty, also the daughter of master and slave, reminds Sally that lineage doesn’t protect anyone from being sold, and that a fancy slave is nevertheless still a slave.
But Carroll is underused and all but disappears in the second half of the film, as does Mario Van Peebles as Sally’s strong-willed but ultimately doomed older brother James.
An extra night spent exploring the complexities of the Hemings’ lives at Monticello, and perhaps a follow-up with her children and ancestors could have elevated the mini tremendously, and given true insight into why and how completely Hemings sacrificed her freedom.
Instead, we get soap opera antics, like Sally saving Jefferson from French revolutionaries; Sally and Jefferson’s oldest daughter Martha (Mare Winningham) cat-fighting for Jefferson’s attention; or worse, montages of the two lovers in front of fireplaces and in gardens or having sex on his desk.
Although the film spans several decades, neither Sally nor Jefferson age much until the last quarter when the special effects are piled on to distracting and disfiguring effect. Other tech credits are spectacular, including Donald L. Morgan’s rich lensing style, Michael T. Boyd’s costumes and David Crank’s lavish production design, including several renditions of the ever-changing Monticello.
Ultimately, perhaps the story of Jefferson and Hemings is forever entwined in the enigma of Monticello itself — frequently remodeled, but never really finished.