Docudramas have always been a tricky art form, being neither pure factual accounts nor pure fiction. But that has never stopped TV or film writers from tackling controversial stories, either retrieved from history or ripped from the day's headlines.
Now, TV has managed to hit both history and headlines at once with CBS's Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (Sunday, Feb. 13, 9-11 p.m., and continued on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 9-11 p.m.).
This four-hour miniseries depicts what the producers call a 38-year love affair between the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson (portrayed by Sam Neill), and his mulatto slave, Sally Hemings (Carmen Ejogo). The allegations constituted a full-fledged scandal during Jefferson's first days as president and dogged him throughout his two terms in office. He and his family steadfastly denied the charges. For two centuries that position has not changed.
But in a stroke of scheduling serendipity for the "eye" network, just two weeks ago the group that oversees the president's estate, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, finally endorsed the idea that the author of the Declaration of Independence fathered at least one if not all of the six children born to Sally Hemings.
This came about as a result of controversial DNA testing conducted on the descendants of both Hemings and Jefferson, which established that a Jefferson male fathered at least one of the Hemings children.
"Although paternity cannot be established with absolute certainty, our evaluation of the best evidence available suggests the strong likelihood that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the birth of one and perhaps all of the known children of Sally Hemings," said the foundation's president, Daniel Jordan, in making the Jan. 26 announcement.
The Monticello Association, a group of descendants of Jefferson daughters, has generally not backed the idea of a relationship between the president and his slave. The Jefferson family has suggested that another Jefferson relative, perhaps a cousin, fathered the children.
The show's producers say the larger historical record points to the president. The series opens with the widowed Jefferson in Paris, as US ambassador to France. "At the point that Sally Hemings showed up in Paris, Thomas Jefferson, who had been dating other women, stopped dating anybody else," says Tina Andrews, co-executive producer and writer of the show. "[He] never, ever dated anyone seriously, nor did he ever marry again...."
Andrews points to the fact that Hemings could have chosen to remain in France, where she was not a slave, yet she returned to Monticello with Jefferson when he left the post. As for another Jefferson male being responsible, Andrews says the historical record locates only Thomas Jefferson at Monticello before each birth.
"Nine months, almost to the day, that he appeared at the plantation, there would be a birth of a child for Sally Hemings," Andrews says. "Sally Hemings also did not give birth whenever he was not at the plantation."
The fact remains that the life of Sally Hemings has scanty documentation, which the producers acknowledge. And in the more than 385 volumes of historical material on the third president, there are no personal mentions of Hemings nor private communications between the two.
Writer Andrews concedes that the story is an exercise in dramatic interpretation.
"Every single thing that happened to Sally Hemings that is in the historical record is in the movie," she says. "What I had to do is emotionally connect those dots."
The series is unlikely to settle any arguments, but those involved say it's time to open a discussion about the disparity between Jefferson's private and public life.
After all, Andrews says, this is a man who "wrote a document that said all men are created equal and discounted women and blacks; who said 'endowed by their creator with life and liberty' and denied liberty to 235 human beings on his plantation; who also said that 'amalgamation is a sin' and yet had a relationship with a black woman and had children with her."
"[We're] taking the position that this is a 200-year-old lie that's been held in the bosom of Americans," says executive producer Craig Anderson. "It's not been exposed until now."
"One of the chief values of this whole presentation is it opens up the discussion," agrees Julia Jefferson Westerinen, a direct descendant of Eston, Sally Hemings's last child. "You can't solve the problem of American racism unless it's acknowledged and discussed whether [or not] it's controversial. That would be good, in my opinion."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society