'Jefferson in Paris': Bad Movie, Important Debate

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- My, what a fuss is being made about "Jefferson in Paris."

The movie starring the hopelessly miscast Nick Nolte, dramatizes Thomas Jefferson's life in Paris in the years immediately after the founding of the United States.


The movie is causing talk because it also dramatizes the hotly debated love affair Jefferson is alleged by some historians to have had with Sally Hemings, a slave girl.

That was enough to get me into the local theater, although I soon wished I had gone to "Tank Girl" instead.


Hemings, as played by Thandie Newton, is astonishingly stereotyped as a giddy, oversexed pickaninny, unbefitting historical accounts of this mannered and cultured woman. The movie's other blacks are similarly seen as "yazzuh, massah," docile types, like a high-class remake of "Mandingo," except "Mandingo," at least, told us something about the horrors of real-life slavery. If you can imagine a movie about the Holocaust that showed only nice Germans, you can catch a hint of how comfy and cozy slavery looks in "Jefferson in Paris."

But, in a wimpy effort to make up for it, Merchant Ivory Productions (which also brought us such classy movies as "Howard's End" and "A Room With a View") makes the movie's white people stupid, too. Mr. Nolte, for example, brings to mind Dorothy Parker's line about a poor player on the stage: He ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.

Like too many other Hollywood depictions of America's original sin, this movie focuses not on the struggle of blacks but on the anguish suffered by whites as they argue among themselves over how to treat blacks.

But, their anguish pales, in this case, next to the anguish suffered by real-life critics, historians and Jefferson fans over the very possibility that the "Dusky Sally" story might be true.

A Washington Post critic, for example, denounces the allegation as "first advanced after the election of 1800 by an alcoholic journalist Jefferson rejected for a political job. It has since been explored and rejected as improbable hearsay. . . . It remains widely believed by much of the public, however, due in part to claims made by Hemings' descendants, which have been publicized periodically over the years, primarily in Ebony magazine."

A New York Times' critic is not quite as dismissive. He cites a well-documented, if overwritten, book published 20 years ago by former University of California at Los Angeles historian Fawn Brodie and a novel written more recently by Barbara Chase-Riboud, who believe the special relationship did take place.

Nevertheless, the critics have a tough time denying an impressive array of circumstantial evidence that supports the allegation. Jefferson gave privileged treatment to Hemings and her family and ordered them freed upon his death. Hemings returned from France, where Jefferson was the U.S. ambassador, pregnant. Her son, Madison Hemings, resembled Jefferson closely enough to startle guests when he served them dinner at his father's home in Monticello.

Author-historian Garry Wills, in a 1974 article in the the New York Times' Book Review, ripped Ms. Brodie's book apart for jumping to too many conclusions, yet calls her claim that Jefferson sired most, if not all, of Hemings' recorded children "a reasonable thesis" also argued by historian Winthrop Jordan and accepted by historians like Richard B. Morris.


"This is not a very romantic light in which to view Jefferson," Mr. Wills concludes, "but he was not a romantic fellow."

No, Jefferson was a conflicted man who lived a highly compartmentalized life. He didn't care for any intrusions on his time and energy, except for the duties of plantation hospitality. He was shy with women, Mr. Wills notes, married late and never remarried. His Paris fling with Maria Cosway, another man's wife, was uncharacteristic of the rest of his life. So, Mr. Wills believes, was the alleged sexual relation with Hemings.

The real question is, what does it matter? To those who argue so relentlessly that it doesn't matter, it appears to matter a great deal.

I suspect Jefferson fans are most troubled, as they should be, by the mere fact that, whether he slept with this slave girl, he had the opportunity simply because, for all his protestations about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, he owned slaves.

And he was ambivalent about it. He tried to outlaw slavery and was outvoted. He forbade it in the Northwest territories, yet, declined to free his own. He agreed with the Age of Enlightenment doctrine that "all men are created equal," yet feared miscegenation would degrade the citizenry's stock.

So, while some may make too much of the available evidence, I am just as skeptical of those who want to make too little of it. Jefferson's life matters because Jefferson matters. His conflicts about race symbolize today's conflicts. Today's Tom Jeffersons can no longer afford to live in deep denial.


Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.