Facts don't burden Jefferson love tale

Television: CBS' portrayal of the president and Sally Hemings borders on fiction. Jefferson as soap opera

February 12, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Outside of the Louisiana Purchase, which appears to have fallen into his lap, Thomas Jefferson was mainly a portrait in failure and flawed character. And, at the end, old Tom was an especially sorry case, but Sally Hemings, his slave-mistress for 38 years, loved him anyway.

That's the history CBS will be teaching tomorrow and Wednesday night with its big-budget sweeps mini-series, "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal," starring Sam Neill and Carmen Ejogo.

If the Jefferson-as-loser narrative doesn't quite square with your sense of our third president and the author of the Declaration of Independence, what can I tell you? This is what executive producer Craig Anderson calls "historical fiction." I call it docudrama, and what it has become in the hands of network executives is a license to remake our history to fit the show-business, carnival-midway values of prime-time, sweeps entertainment.

You want flesh? Step right up. You want a black heroine stripped naked, hung from a pole and beaten with a bull whip by an evil white slave trader even though we have no evidence any such thing ever happened to Hemings? We have that, too.

Heck, we'll even tell you what Tom and Sally said to each other when they made love. How do we know what they said? Well, we don't, but it's only television, right? And, by the way, we are making this into a love story, even though such master-slave relationships were more a matter of what most of us would call rape.

As entertainment, "Sally Hemings" starts a little slowly, but once it gets Tom and Sally in bed in Paris where he is U.S. ambassador, it definitely finds its groove.

Sally was a fast study in France. She came there a poor, barely tutored teen-age slave, and a year later, she's dancing at Versailles, speaking French, quizzing Tom Paine on the finer points of his pamphlets and challenging her Tom on the contradictions between his writings on freedom and his life as a slave holder.

And, poor Tom, he just can't explain the contradictions. All he can do is beg Sally to take him in her arms again and again and again.

The dominant narrative pattern of the four hours: Tom goes off to Washington or some other place on the world stage to make what's called history. Meanwhile, back at the plantation, something bad happens to Sally because of her love for Tom. And, then Tom returns and begs her forgiveness in the bedroom. And the next morning, he's at the writing table happily scribbling away, and she's lying in bed with a dreamy, contented smile on her face.

If this sounds like soap opera, maybe it's because that's the background screenwriter Tina Andrews brings to the script. As an actress, she played Valerie Grant on "Days of Our Lives," one of the first African-American characters to be involved in an interracial relationship on daytime TV.

Andrews says she was "depressed and frustrated" by the experience on "Days," because her character and not the white male was the one that was dropped from the show "when the controversy behind it got too heated." That's when she decided to try to write "one of the greatest interracial love stories in American history."

I hate the reckless license Andrews and Anderson take with our national past as well as those of Hemings and Jefferson. But I want to be fair in helping you judge whether you want to watch the miniseries. So, here's Andrews' explanation of how and why she went about cooking the history books.

On making it a love story: "I saw this story as one about two people who found each other, fell in love and became victims of the times in which they lived. The fact that they were together for almost 40 years, and remained so despite extraordinary circumstances, makes me want to believe there was some tenderness and emotion involved."

Beyond what Andrews wants to believe, evidence we do have from black oral histories suggests that one reason for the length of the relationship was Jefferson threatening to sell Hemings' children if she didn't remain his mistress.

On Sally knocking 'em dead at the palace: "Where I couldn't find historical references, I had to connect the dramatic dots. For instance, we know that Sally was in Paris with Jefferson and that he went to Versailles on many occasions. If he brought his daughters with him, there would be a ladies maid in attendance. So, in my mind, who would be in attendance? Sally Hemings."

On Sally playing a key role in the underground railroad, which results in the nearly fatal beating she receives from a slave trader: "Whether or not she actually assisted runaways is unknown. But I do know that her son, Tom, did after he left Monticello. So I made the assumption that his influence had to come from somewhere and logically thought it had come from his mother.

"I also present Sally as someone who secretly taught other slaves how to read. This came to me because so many of Madison's [another of her sons] descendants became teachers and professors."

Beyond what "came" to Andrews, all we know for sure about the relationship is that DNA analysis confirmed in 1998 that one of Hemings' seven children was fathered by Jefferson. That fact helped open the door to a long-overdue discussion on slavery, race, the "founding fathers" and national identity.

One can only hope the larger discussion can survive such irresponsible attempts to exploit it as "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal."

Weekend TV

What: "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal"

When: 9 to 11 tomorrow and Wednesday nights

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: History recklessly re-imagined as soap opera

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