Sally Hemings: An American Scandal
The teenage Sally (Carmen Ejogo) begins her unexpected relationship with widower Thomas Jefferson (Sam Neill) in Paris where he is serving as the U.S. Ambassador to France. After escorting Jefferson’s younger daughter on a trans-Atlantic journey to join him in Paris, Sally is soon exposed to a world quite unlike the one in which she has lived as an illiterate slave in Monticello. While Sally serves as a nanny of sorts, Jefferson provides her with an education, fine clothes and opportunities to experience cultural events. She and her brother, James (Mario Van Peebles), who works as Jefferson’s chef and was also educated by him, delight in the fact that they are free in France—and are treated with respect. It is under these circumstances that Sally and Jefferson become acquainted with one another and begin an affair that will ultimately lead to scandal.
***Editor’s note. Dove does not normally award its Seal to films which includes sex outside of marriage. Although this film does include this, it is in the context of historical accuracy and there are no graphic scenes. Therefore, The Dove Foundation does award its Seal to this film, for ages twelve and above.
Thomas Jefferson (Sam Neill) tells his mistress Sally (Carmen Ejogo) that he hates slavery, but as a powerful man of influence, including a signer of The Declaration of Independence, and owner of Monticello, and eventually President of the United States, he struggles with the issue. He owns slaves and has his children with Sally outside of marriage. To a great extent this film is seen through Sally’s eyes and her loyalty to Jefferson remains unshakable despite her frustration in living on the side as his mistress. The character of Sally says in the beginning of the film that she was born to slavery and destined to scandal.
There is the use of a racial word a few times and some strong language, but this is a taut and enlightening story, based on history, and we award our Dove “Family-Approved” Seal to the film. In an interesting side note, Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of The Declaration of Independence.