Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000)



Director:  Charles Haid.

Starring:  Sam Neill (Thomas Jefferson), Carmen Ejogo (Sally Hemings), Diahann Carroll (Betty Hemings), Mare Winningham (Martha 'Patsy' Jefferson Randolph), Mario Van Peebles (James Hemings), Rene Auberjonois (James Callender), Zeljko Ivanek (Thomas Mann Randolph), Klea Scott (Critta Hemings), Jessica Townsend (Maria 'Polly' Jefferson), Larry Gilliard Jr. (Henry Jackson), Kevin Conway (Thomas Paine), Amelia Heinle (Harriet Hemings), Peter Bradbury (Samuel Carr), Chris Stafford (Peter Carr), Kelly Rutherford (Lady Maria Cosway).

black female lover of Thomas Jefferson


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Sally Hemings narrates the film. She says we were never called slaves.  Two of Jefferson's nephews Peter and Samuel come down to the slave quarters and are chased away by the matriarch, Sally's mother.  She then tells Sally that she will be sent to Paris, France instead of Isabelle, her sister, because Isabelle is with child.  Sally complains saying that she was going to "jump the broom" with Henry Jackson. 

Sally goes with Polly Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's daughter, to Paris.  In Paris Sally is greeted by her brother James Hemings and Jefferson's other daughter, Martha.  Sally is scared to serve Jefferson's guests because she is afraid of making a mistake.  At the dinner is Thomas Paine, the famous American patriotic writer. He tells Jefferson to have Sally stop calling him "master".  Lady Cosgrove is also at the dinner.  She is romantically linked with Jefferson. 

Jefferson talks with Sally and tells her that he would be her mentor.  He mentions to her that she looks a lot like his wife.  Martha tells her father that convent schools give the best education.  Lady Cosgrove tells Jefferson that she is willing to leave her husband, but lately Jefferson has been so distant with her that now she is thinking of reconciling with Richard.

In nine months Sally has learned how to read and write both English and French. 

1788.  Sally gives a poor French rebel some food so he can feed his son.  Mr. Paine tells Jefferson that Sally Hemings is the perfect example of what slaves are capable of accomplishing and he should use her as an example.  He then dances with Sally and Jefferson dances with his daughter Martha.  Then Paine has Jefferson dance with Sally, while he talks with Martha.  The King and Queen of France enter. 

In private Jefferson tells Sally:  "I love your touch.  I cannot explain it."  They start to have an intimate moment.  The next day Jefferson asks Sally to please forgive him, but she simply leans offer and kisses him.  Jefferson sends all the servants to help the Du Ponts except Sally and his French man servant.  Virtually all alone, the two begin a very close, intimate relationship.  But this is not going to be a normal relationship because of the color of Sally's skin.  She tells Jefferson:  "I love you."  He responds with "You must not."

Three months later.  There is rioting in the streets of Paris.  On July 14 the Bastille prison is stormed beginning the French Revolution.  Sally in a coach is harassed by the crowds who take her for one of the aristocrats.  Her brother is unhappy with her because he wants her to stay with him in Paris as a free person.  But Jefferson begs her to "Please, come back with me."  Jefferson tells James that if he returns with them to Monticello, his home, he will be a free man.  James decides to go back to Virginia.  As they try to leave, their entourage is harassed by the mobs.  But then the local leader recognizes Sally as the woman who had given him food so he could feed his child.  He allows them to proceed without further hindrance. 

September 1789.  The homecoming of Jefferson and Sally.  Sally is welcomed by her mother, but she is disturbed by what she finds.  Her daughter is pregnant.  She is also afraid of all Sally's fine things (fine things are a trap, she says) and her perfect English and French.  She tells her daughter: "You are a damn fool, Sally."  Henry Jackson talks to Sally and learns the bad news that she is already pregnant with another man's daughter.

Mr. Randolph announces to a crowd outside Monticello that Jefferson has been appointed Secretary of State.  Sally gives birth to a very white boy by Jefferson.  The boy is named Thomas Jefferson Hemings.  Martha is upset when she sees the color of the baby's skin.  The baby boy is the result of now three generations of sex between white plantation owners and Hemings women. 

1791, one year later.  Martha married Mr. Randolph in the spring of 1790.  Henry Jackson is sold with some other Jefferson slaves.  There is a scarcity of Thomas Jefferson visits home.  Henry tells Sally that he asked Jefferson to sell him because he could not stand being around her when she is devoted to Jefferson.  He also tells her that Mr. Randolph is crazy, always muttering to himself. 

Martha is with child.  Jefferson writes that he will soon be home.  The baby, however, is stillborn.  Sally and Henry help a slave run-a-way to freedom.  They two are caught and returned to Jefferson who tells Sally:  "You will do as I say."  Jefferson has had virtually no luck getting his legislation through Congress, so he will resign as Secretary of State.  With Jefferson at home, Sally says four years of happiness followed.

1795.  Sally has a white baby girl named Edie and Martha Jefferson has a baby girl.  Jefferson redesigns Monticello and invents his own swivel chair. 

James Hemings resents the way he is treated at Monticello and upset by his leaving France.  Master Peter Jefferson arrives at his house to have sex with his sister Isabelle.  James tells him to stop raping his sister.  The matriarch saves James by shooing Peter away. 

Political big shots want Jefferson to be the president.  He runs but loses the presidency.  He does, however, become Vice-President of the United States.  James tells Jefferson that he is leaving:  "I cannot turn down freedom twice."  Edie Hemings dies and is buried in the slave cemetery (which Sally naturally resents). 

1796.  Polly gets married to Jack Epps.  Henry Jackson tells the pregnant Sally that he has heard from her brother in Washington that Jefferson has another woman: Margaret Bayard Smith.  Henry wants to run off with Sally, but she refuses.  When Jefferson shows up she immediately asks him who is this Margaret Bayard Smith.  He explains that she is just a friend.  She is married and sometimes serves as a proxy first-lady for the bachelor president. 

Sally learns that Henry Jackson will be hanged for participating in a slave revolt.  Sally goes to see his hanging, but he is such trouble to get the noose on that one of the executioners just shoots him in the head with his rifle.  She is very upset and angry and demands to know from Jefferson:  "Where do you stand against slavery?"

1798.  Sally gives birth to son Beverly.

1800.  Jefferson runs for and wins the presidency of the United States.

A journalist named James T. Callender has dinner with Jefferson and others.  He is very rude at the dinner asking Jefferson about the heritage of so many fair-skinned slaves.  After dinner he tries to blackmail Jefferson:  he will keep quiet about Sally if Jefferson will either give him money or appoint him post master someplace in Virginia.  Jefferson does not cooperate with the man.

1801.  Sally gives birth to a girl, Harriet Jefferson Hemings.  And she becomes the most infamous woman of color in the country.  Jefferson receives reports that members of Congress ridicule him.  Jefferson responds by saying:  "It's no business of Congress."  The scandal breaks over the Jefferson family and proves very upsetting.  Thomas Jefferson Hemings is very hurt at what he hears and decides to run away.  He goes to Ohio.  Martha advises her father to sell Sally.  Jefferson will not.  Martha then gets the white members of the family to agree that all accusations about Jefferson be denied.  Sally overhears Martha talking with her father, gets offended and gets out of the house. 

While Jefferson is in Washington, D.C., Martha enters Sally's room when she is not there and burns her private love letters.  She then tells Sally to leave the house.  In Washington, D.C., a toast at a presidential dinner is made to the Louisiana Purchase from the French.  All of a sudden Sally Hemings makes an appearance as one of the servants.  Mrs. Smith comments to Dolly Madison about Sally that given her good looks it is no wonder she turned the head of the president.  Later Jefferson scolds Sally for her little trick.  She asks him: "Are you meaning to sell me?"  Then she tells Jefferson about the recent ugly actions of Martha.  Jefferson reassures her and writes a stern letter to his daughter.  Sally delivers it to Martha back home and then walks right past her into the house.  (On her way back, she had an ugly confrontation with the journalist Callender, who gave her his business card.)

A drunken James Hemings threatens Callender and says he will put a curse on him.  In a huge field, James shoots himself in the head.  Martha reads her father's letter of condolence to the funeral attendees.  Sally pays a visit to a vodoo practitioner and puts a curse on Callender so that he will die. 

Sally protests to the new foreman about his treatment of the slaves and he slaps her.  The nicer of the two Jefferson nephews, Peter, tells the foreman to leave the plantation and never come back.  A black runaway comes to Sally and asks her to help him to escape.  Sally agrees to drive him to the river where he can cross, but the runaway turns out to be a hired snitch and delivers her to the recently fired foreman.  He strips Sally nude and ties her hands above her head over a beam.  Completely alone and helpless, the foreman uses a bullwhip to whip her. 

Back at Monticello the nephews are talking and the meaner nephew, Samuel, mentions that Sally is being handled right now.  This alarms his brother.  The sadistic foreman stands over the whipped, bleeding Sally and taunts her.  Peter gets the drop on the foreman and his associates and forces the men to leave Sally alone.  On the bright side, journalist Callender's body is found, drowned in three feet of water. 

1803.  Jefferson is home for the harvest celebration.  He catches his nephew Samuel trying to force Sally to have an intimate relationship with him.  He tells Samuel to leave because he is no longer welcome at Monticello.  He then scolds Sally for "wanting a younger man".  Sally is furious and tells him that of course he would believe his rotten nephew over his slave concubine.  Then she launches into a wicked criticism of him for a hateful passage in one of his books about how blacks just cannot equal whites in intelligence.  Jefferson protests that he wrote that passage many, many years ago when he was ignorant.  Sally tells him:  "I hate you.  I hate what I've allowed you to turn me into."  She then shows him her scars.  (Jefferson is shocked but says nothing about the scars.  He does, however, tell her that he loves her.)

1815.  Twelve years later.  Sally has given birth to Madison and Esther.  Jefferson has fallen deeply into debt.  Polly Jefferson has died.  Jefferson announces the completion of the dome over Monticello.  He tells everyone that his next task is to build the University of Virginia. 

The DuPont neighbors visit Jefferson.  Mr. DuPont's nephew, William Alexander, takes a real liking to Harriet Jefferson Hemings.  He does not know, however, that Harriet is a slave.  Alexander sees Harriet a number of times and tells her that he will take her to Philadelphia.  Then one day Alexander learns from Mr. Randolph that Harriet is a slave.  Alexander is infuriated and walks to the slave quarters to ball out Harriet.  One of Harriet's brothers comes to her rescue and Alexander is forced to leave.  Harriet is very upset about what happened.  She tells her mother that she wants to get out of slavery to freedom and opportunity.  The incident was also very painful for Jefferson as his loyalties to his daughter and to his friend came into conflict. 

1820.  Five years later.  Jefferson is now $100,000 dollars in debt and has to sell off almost all his Monticello furnishings.  He even has to sell his library of some 8,000 books.  But it is still not enough money.  Martha tells her father that he will be forces off the plantation unless he sells the slaves.  Jefferson says no.  But sell the slaves he must.  His eyes fill with tears as he is forced to tell the slaves that they will be sold.  Sally is heart-broken on the day the slaves have to leave Monticello.  

Jefferson gives some money to his slave children Beverly and Harriet.  Harriet went to Philadelphia and Beverly to Washington, D.C.  Now Sally has had three children who have passed into the white world. 

One day Thomas Jefferson Hemings returns to see his mother.  He tells her that he has been married for 20 years now and that she has ten grandchildren.  He asks his mother to please come to live with him in Ohio. But mom will never leave Mr. Jefferson.  Jefferson comes up to the visitor.  His son tells him his new name, Tom Wilson.  But Jefferson knows the man's true identity and confirms it by asking for the time.  (Jefferson had given Tom a watch before he left.)

Martha arrives with bad news.  They have foreclosed and they have lost Monticello.  Jefferson faints.  He takes to bed.  There he asks Sally to forgive him.  He adds:  "I have always loved you." 

Jefferson dies.  Martha is upset over his will because it does not leave anything to anyone, not even Sally.  Sally tries to reconcile with Martha, telling her:  "I am your half-aunt, Martha."  She also tells Martha that she cannot sell her because she is a free woman, has been since they left Paris for Virginia.  She then shows the emancipation paper written and signed by Jefferson.  Martha says:  "Then you are a fool!"  Sally responds:  "I would never have left your father."  She will stay at Monticello to be with her sons. 

1835.  Death of Sally Hemings. 

In 1995 DNA testing was done to show the genetic link between the Jeffersons and the Hemings.  (But of course the real conservative columnists and others of their racist ilk did what they could to deny the connection.  But what else would one expect in still very racist America?)


Very good movie.  Much better than the other movie about the relationship. The beautiful Carmen Ejogo was wonderful as Sally Hemings.  It was a great love story and the movie really makes non-racists suffer over the terrible consequences of the intimate relationship between a white man and a black woman.   There were quite a few upsetting scenes, but it is better to know the truth and the whole truth about the effects of racism on human lives.  I had no idea that Jefferson was in debt when he died and that he had lost Monticello.  That Sally stayed with Jefferson even through the terrible years of bankruptcy (the selling of all the Monticello furnishings, losing Monticello itself, and worse for Sally, the selling of all the slaves) gives one even greater respect for Sally.  Worth watching. 

The only thing that bugged me was that the screenplay does not have Jefferson ask Sally who had given her the brutal whipping and that nothing was said about the fate of the sadistic, racist foreman. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

Historical Background:

See Jefferson in Paris (1995).


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