Tag Archives: Black

The Human Stain

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Coleman Silk has problems. His wife has just died, he has resigned from his job of 35 years under accusations of racism, he is sleeping with an inconvenient woman half his age. And he’s black. Sort of.

 

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Coleman Silk, the lead character in the 2003 film The Human Stain, is an interesting study of a man caught between two worlds for his entire adult life. He is, on the surface, an older, Jewish professor leading a life of academic gentility whose only concern seems to be the truancy of two students in his Classics course. That academic world, however, is rocked when, in a moment of casual query, he asks if anyone in the room has seen the students, “…or are they spooks.” That word, “spooks,” becomes the fulcrum on which Coleman’s life tilts as he is instantly branded a racist and angrily resigns his post under a dark cloud of politically correct, asinine hogwash.

This would be enough to bring anyone to the brink, but the other side of Coleman’s particular fulcrum is that the entire affair is made more problematic for Coleman and the audience when it is revealed that he is a black man who has been passing for white for the last 50 years. Nevermind that Coleman could have ended his employment woes by asserting that he is, in fact, black- that point is driven home in the film’s final moments- it is his journey to reaching the literal point of no return that is more worthy of exploration.

It is easy enough to reconcile that the strongest thread of the film is secrets and the cost of living with them. But less easy to reconcile is is the notion of the “Stain” of the title. There are the stains of death and destruction, the stain of a life of lies, the stain of failure and the stain of the loss of family. All of these are important to the characters at one point or another, and in the cases of Coleman and his girlfriend Faunia, all at the same time.

Coleman’s stain begins in 1948 where we meet a teenaged Coleman ‘Silky’ Silk, already skilled at living a dual life as, on one hand, a boxer and on the other hand, a student seemingly on his way to Howard University. However the sudden death of his father marks a turning point for Coleman, as the only real impediment to life as a white man is removed. With the stroke of a pen, his life and the lives of his family are altered forever as be goes from being Coleman Silk ‘Negro’, to just Coleman.

 

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Coleman’s betrayal causes his mother to label him a “murderer,” and this is another thread, that of “murder,” that runs through the film, to great effect. The lives of all presented are touched by this in some way, whether literal or figurative, and these deaths tie together a difficult story with as neat a bow as possible. It is ironic that the one person in which Coleman has confided his dark secret, his fantastically troubled girlfriend, Faunia, is also the one murdered with him, thereby (almost) taking his secret to both their graves.

Brother to Brother

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Brother to Brother is an ambitious 2004 film from first time director Rodney Evans that weaves a tale of past and present through the eyes of artists from both eras. That the film is a debut feature from the filmmaker is notable, for while it tells a story of an era that is surprisingly not oft told, it almost falls victim to the first time director curse of trying to do too much.

The film introduces us to Perry a young, African-American student in New York, struggling with personal trials in the face of his family’s recent discovery of his homosexuality. He is not alone on his journey, however, as we meet the friends and classmates that populate his world and who seem to accept him as he is. Where the film comes alive, though, is in Perry’s ‘meet cute’ on the streets of the city with an older man who both vexes and fascinates him.

 

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The older man turns out to be Bruce Nugent, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance who, like Perry, is gay. It is in their meeting and subsequent socializing that the film takes the audience out of the present and back to the vibrant and tumultuous world of Bruce’s past.

We meet Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and others of the day, who create a Harlem of artistic truth and freedom the likes of which the young Nugent is eager to get in on. These Harlem Renaissance portions of the film, which are shot in black and white for effect, offer parallels for current day Perry that he has never previously considered.

 

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While much time has passed since the days of the Harlem Renaissance, Perry and the audience find that not much has been done in the way of widespread black, or African-American, lack of acceptance of homosexuality. Then, like now, creatives who happen to be black and gay are brushed under the collective societal rug in an effort to pretend that these people don’t exist and can’t sully the race with their unnatural doings. Within their own sphere, there is none of that exclusion, however. Instead, black and gay artists are often fetishized and exoticized by the usually wealthy white people, like Carl Van Vechten, who is portrayed here, who, when it was convenient, inhabited and profited from their world.

That idea, fetishization, is also something that current day Perry has to come to terms with, as he finds himself the object of exotic desire and ‘otherness’ of his down-low, white lover, Jim.

 

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The most heart wrenching scene in the film, for this viewer, was a scene that takes place between Perry and Jim. In it, Perry, after some positive association and time spent with older Nugent, comes to the realization that the only things he’s after are love and true acceptance, and that he is, indeed, worthy of that love and not the crumbs of sexual desire currently on offer. If that were the film’s only redeeming quality, which it is not, it would be enough. There are countless young, gay, black people who could use that particular lesson and perhaps, a viewing of this film.

Dark Girls

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When I was a little girl, my mother had several pieces of African art in our house. One painting in particular showed a beaming, black baby with the words, “Black is beautiful,” painted next to her. Growing up, I saw this painting every day, and although I didn’t know it at the time, those words and the constant message of positivity were rescuing me before any calamity had come my way. At 9 years old, a boy at my school, a black boy, decided to play ‘The Dozens’ using me as his target. At some point in his little display, the words, “You’re so dark…,” came out of his mouth. I registered no reaction, mostly because I was truly confused. He tried again, this time with the words, “You’re so black,” but again, he got no reaction. What had happened was that I could not see his words as the insult he intended them to be because for me, the damage had already been done. That damage came in the form of the blows against the colorism and internalized racism that my mother had already struck because she knew I would face these forces as a dark skinned, black girl in this country.

 

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After watching the film “Dark Girls,” I’m heartbroken at the thought that messages like the ones my mother gave me have not reached every black person in this country. Whiter skin color has always been seen as currency in this country and this currency still carries value, in that the lighter a person’s skin, the more ease that person is perceived to have to move and elevate him or herself in society.

But hearing the stories in “Dark Girls,” one is struck by the notion that this internalized racism goes much deeper than perceptions of economic mobility. Indeed, the attitudes of black people who are victims of this kind of post traumatic slave disorder seems to be that lighter skin, in many cases, simply makes a person better. Dark skinned women seem to possess, in a greater amount, the thing about black men and other black women that they hate about themselves, which is their very blackness itself. It is not difficult to believe that the energy trauma of slavery has imbued itself in the DNA of black folks, if we are to understand the very deep and long lasting attitudes about dark skin the film wants to portray.

 

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Although she hadn’t reached the career heights she is now experiencing, Viola Davis’ presence in the film is important, as is her current success. As she says, she grew up not seeing any examples of women or girls who looked like her in the media, so her visibility itself could, for young, black women watching her career now, possibly be the thing that causes someone to put down the jar of Porcelana and pursue something else. It could also be a catalyst for young black men to shift their harmful, incorrect and delusional attitudes about the beauty of black women, simply because she is, now, being held up as a symbol of beauty and positive sexuality.

 

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“Dark Girls” is the movie I wish were shown more on television instead of the current ‘mulatto follies’ on stations like BET. Strangely, as it stated several times in the movie, some white people seem to appreciate and find beauty in dark skin. As dark skin gets more positive, widespread media exposure, perhaps it will be these white people who will aid in helping some black people find and appreciate that same beauty. Stranger things, like racism itself, have happened.

Imitation of Life

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“Ya just gotta learn to take it.” These words, spoken by Louise Beavers as Delilah in the 1934 filmed version of Imitation of Life, perfectly sum up the lot of the characters of Delilah and her daughter, tragic mulatto extraordinaire, Peola.

 

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The film, based on the 1933 story by Fannie Hurst, follows the turn of fortune in the lives of a once down-on-her-luck widow, played with pluck by Claudette Colbert and domestic pancake genie Delilah, played by Beavers. The women share more than a need for money, however, they also share the fact that they are single mothers, each trying to raise a daughter. If that were the whole story, it might make for a light diversion, but as it stands the film is much, much more and is one of the better melodramas of the period.

Louise Beavers, who should go down in history as the first come to life Negro spiritual, portrays Delilah with all the bowed head, soft voiced ‘Mammy-ism’ she can muster, and here, she is used to great effect. Her portrayal is offensive in many respects, but because the character is given an actual storyline that does more than simply push along the story of the white characters, she is notable for whatever dignity with which she manages to imbue the character.

 

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However it is then appearance of Fredi Washington forty minutes into the film that we are given the first real tension and conflict of the story. Rather than the tantrums of a misunderstood child, Washington shows us a Peola who has the full, lived experience of an extremely light skinned woman who longs to fit into one world and who rejects the possibility of fitting into another.

 

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With possibly one of the most perfect castings to ever capture an accurate portrayal of an actual African-American who is light skinned enough to realistically pass for white, Fredi Washington, enlivens the sad character of Peola with a sense of anger, confusion and disgust with her situation that she is easily the best part of the film. In hindsight, what makes the casting even more perfect is that Washington, in her real life, was such a fierce and staunch advocate for Civil Rights for black people, that her portrayal of a woman trapped in cage of self-hatred is a revelation. This is a good thing, since the dumb, almost childlike portrayal of Delilah by Beavers, whose only wish in life is for a grand funeral, is sometimes anger making in its earnestness.

While the Delilah/Peola storyline is a co-plot, it is one of the first instances in film where a black character’s storyline carries equal weight with that of the white characters. This should be a good thing, but since the storyline consists of maternal difficulties, a delusional child, a life of servitude and death, I’m not so sure that this is a positive net gain.

Queen- A Plantation’s Child

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In Alex Haley’s 1992 mini-series, Queen, we are presented with a “child of the plantation, just like thousands of others.” For Queen, played by Halle Berry, is a mixed race little girl born of a slave and her master who, we are told, would be better off with her “own people.” But the question of who, exactly, those people are, seems to be an area for exploration in the mind of the titular character.

Queen starts off much like the later film Jefferson in Paris,  presenting a relationship that is as light and airy as cotton candy and with the slave, Easter, pursuing her master. It was said that Haley wanted to show a lightheartedness and tenderness to the relationship of Easter and her master, and he got what he wanted. While unnervingly unrealistic, slave and master romp about the plantation and eventually produce a love child named Queen.

Young Queen , who is keenly aware of the difference in the melanin in her skin, in relation to other slaves in her surroundings, grows and is made the handmaid to her half-sister, thus beginning her life as “little miss in between.”

While shown to be educated to a degree and literate, Berry as Queen insists on using a kind of slave-speak so offensive as to be laughable. It is made all the more jarring because no one in her life, that we are shown, speaks this way. This bit of acting choice follows Berry throughout the series and is, I suppose, her way of becoming ‘black’ or ‘slave-y’ enough to come across as said “child of the plantation.” It does not work, and is really the only sticking point, acting wise.

 

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But where Berry succeeds is in giving us a desperate Queen; a Queen so desperate for her white family’s acceptance, she initially refuses to leave the plantation for her own possible betterment. However, after the ravages of the Civil War have destroyed the plantation and left her little choice, she does make good her get away and finds herself a young lady in The Carolinas.

She is befriended by a fellow “high yella” woman, played by Lonnette McKee, who shows her the ways of the world and how to use her whiteness as an advantage. These “high yella” women, who easily pass for white (although they are obvious to each other) are made to use their looks to get by when they possess seemingly little else of value. As McKee’s character points out, “We’re lucky we can choose.” And choose she does. Queen passes with disastrous results, finding that her whiteness is both a blessing and a curse, and eventually finds herself on the road again looking for a home. This is a recurring theme, wayward Queen looking for a home, that is not so subtle in its showing.

After breaking down in a church declaring, “I’s negra! I’s NEGRA!”, Queen is finally shown some compassion from her own people (black people) and her life looks like it’s on the mend. It isn’t long, however, that she is forced from her home, yet again, due to some naive personal choices that leave her alone and with child. On the road again, she is faced with betrayal, the lynching of her baby’s father (which scars her in unspeakable ways) and an obsession with her child that borders on unhealthy.
Queen does eventually find that home she was looking for in the arms of the kindhearted and willing-to-overlook-a-lot-of-issues Alec, played with aplomb by Danny Glover. But even her marital and domestic happiness are marred by her disillusionment when, after the death of,her father, she makes her way ‘home’ to the plantation of her youth. She is cast out, once again, by her father’s hateful wife and seems to finally understand that while she filled space physically in the place, it was never her home.

Ultimately, the series is about self-identity and a yearning to belong. Queen’s personal struggle to find where she fits- a home, both within and outside of her- is relieved with her final revelation that, “home is where you are loved.”

 

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Pinky

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Set in a backwoods Mississippi town in the 1940’s, “Pinky” tells the story of a light skinned black woman who returns to her birthplace amid questions, secrecy and complicated racial politics.
Patricia Johnson, or Pinky, as she is known by those in her hometown, has retuned to her roots after completing her nursing education in the North. While she is received joyously by her dark skinned grandmother, played by the remarkable Ethel Waters, her arrival is also fraught with questions regarding the conflict and embarrassment of her passing while away at school. Pinky is immediately shamed and made to repent, in a way, for the sin of passing by enduring difficulties that would have been non-issues had she been a white woman.
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Pinky, whose name can only be a reference to the ‘pinkness’ of her skin, is thrust into situations in her town where she is, at first, taken for a white woman, treated with decency, and when her true background is revealed, then treated with hostility and violence. She goes from protected to detained by the police when she is found to be black, and her body is violated by those same police and other white men who see her only as a thing to be disrespected and abused.
It is no wonder, then, that Pinky decided to pass for white as soon as she had escaped the clutches of the ultra racist South for the somewhat less obviously racist haven of the North. While the audience can easily understand Pinky’s motives for passing, what is more subversive to the plot, is that Pinky herself knows why she has done what she’s done. She hasn’t even de-boarded her train northward before she has passed, and while she is shamed for it later, she is also aware of the caste system that she is both victim and beneficiary of.
If there is a weakness in the film, it is in the casting of Jeanne Crain as Pinky. It was perhaps an unavoidable dilemma, as the two black actresses of the time who were considered ‘black, but not too black’, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, were, in this instance, too dark skinned to believe as passing for white. This left producer Daryl F. Zanuck with the choice of Crain, who, as a white woman, lacks both the frame of reference and internal turmoil to contend with the subject matter. This practice was not new, nor has it abated, but it is perhaps especially contentious in a film specifically, and not tangentially, about race.
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Although not a weakness, but of note, is the character of Pinky herself. Whether by design or by acting and directing choices, Pinky, with her light skin and all, is a member of Strong Black Woman club. Through her struggle, and there must be a struggle,  to obtain justice for herself and uphold the pride with which she has been imbued, she is also made to uplift her entire race. In the end, Pinky, by her proud affirmation of her true identity, has become the “credit” to her race she was always meant to be.

Band of Angels

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“Band of Angels”, the 1957 Raoul Walsh film starring Clark Gable and Yvonne de Carlo is  strange tale.  It owes no small debt to the novel Iola Leroy, by Frances Harper, as it shares more than a few plot points. But the film, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, is also a departure for a few reasons.

Amantha, like Iola, is a privileged young woman of light skin, so light as to pass for the skin of a white woman. Both Amantha and Iola are the “issue” of slave mothers, who were the result of seemingly loving and fully fashioned relationships with their white fathers. Both young women are educated away from home and both are informed of their slave status after the deaths of their respective, beloved, white fathers. And both women are suddenly removed from their lives as free, white people and turned over to lives of instant slavery. But here, most of the similarities end.

 

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In the matter of the tragic mulatta, Amantha Starr, does not fit. In fact, Amantha’s tragedy seems to be that she is only momentarily removed from her whiteness and status. She is, however, soon enough restored, in a way, and resigns herself to her fate in her new home with her benefactor, Mr. Hamish Bond.

 

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In the confines of the idyllic New Orleans lodgings of Hamish Bond, Amantha, Rau-Ru and the household of seemingly content ‘slaves’ go about their lives not terribly fazed by the impending war, their lot in life or much else. For a film that opens with such a strong statement regarding slavery and the precarious nature of those individuals with vague light skinned privilege, it takes a turn into an almost fantasy of Beauty and The Beast proportions following the love story of Amantha and Hamish.

 

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The star crossed lovers are thwarted, in epic fashion, by the arrival of the Civil War, a scandalous secret and the vendetta of Hamish’s “high stepper,” Rau-Ru.

Rau-Ru, for his part, is fixed on righting the wrong committed by Hamish in exhibiting his “kindness.” It is the the sort of bleak, misshapen “kindness”, which comes to light later on, and makes for a complexity of character for Bond and Rau-Ru which is not afforded the other characters in the film.

In the end, however, it is the trope of the ‘Magical Negro’, in the form of the previously angry Rau-Ru, that takes hold and any thoughts of vendettas are put aside so that the white people can ride, literally, off into the sunset.

What starts off as a promising story exploring miscegenation and it’s repercussions, ends as a fairly typical love story uncomplicated by any of that messy race stuff. And perhaps that’s as it should be.

Feast of All Saints

 

 

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“Placage promised happiness, but brought only…sorrow.” These words are spoken by a character in the 2001 Showtime miniseries “The Feast of All Saints”. The film, based on the 1979 book by Anne Rice of the same title, is set in New Orleans during the 1840’s, where the aformentioned practice of “placage”, or the (usually) extra-marrital relationships between ‘free’ women of color and wealthy white men, is the norm.

The practice of placage, which is really just a fancy, French word (and if we’re taught anything, it’s that everything is better if it’s fancy and French) for the romantic notion of the exploitation of women of color, is a practice of sexual, social and racial inequity so obvious, that it makes one wonder how could it produce anything but sorrow and pain. The ‘not quite master, not quite slave’ characteristics of the rituals of placage set up a power imbalance so fierce that often the only to way to maintain a life outside of the fields, was to be be born ‘free’ with light skin and good hair and hope to be acquired by the richest white man down the road.
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However, this film wants the viewer to believe that the black women, or “octaroons” of the “Gens de Coleur Libre” held such power and sway that they not only secured financially beneficial arrangements for themselves, but for any children born of the relationship. This power, or bizarre kind of leverage, seems to come from the idea that their blackness or exotic sexuality was enough to keep the wealthy white men of the time spellbound sufficient to keep these arrangements intact for years as a second, unacknowledged, mixed family would emerge into high society with all its trappings.
The film focuses on one of the families created by one of these unions and the problems one would imagine to be rife in such a situation.
We are introduced to Cecile St. Marie and Monsieur Farronaire, played by the completely mismatched and chemistry-less Gloria Reuben and Peter Gallagher, and subsequently to their offspring, Marcel and Marie, played by Robert Ri’chard and Nicole Lyn. We are also introduced to another Farronaire offspring, Lisette; the product of the actual slave/master relationship  between Farronaire and his slave, Zazu, although the film does not make this clear at first. Into this motley crew are thrown the various characters that round out the New Orleans of the pre-Civil War era and provide the backdrop for the film.
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The central theme to the comings and goings of the Gens de Colour Libre, seems to be the idea that they are simply better than other blacks, by virtue of their whiteness and how removed from slavery they are. In fact, the character of Marcel, played as an older man by James Earl Jones, relates that he, indeed, thought the Gens de Colour Libre were “different” and “better” than those he was surrounded by and it is only age and wisdom that forces him to see the shame in his prior thoughts.
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Also problematic for the Gens de Colour Libre in this set up, is the gender inequality that purports to educate the young men produced by placage and to simply turn out into prostitution any females born into it. When beautiful, very white looking Marie St. Marie (neither she nor her brother were given their father’s name) comes of age, she is pressured and almost forced by her own mother, Cecile, into the same life that has made her a “whore” in Marie’s mind and left her totally unable to care for herself. So naturally, because a story like this can’t NOT have an ultra tragic mulatta, the only outcome for Marie is to be raped by five white men in a revenge trap set by her slave sister who envies not only her white skin, but her place in society.
We are left with a story full of characters who find that if they somewhat retain their blackness and wear the mask of their freedom, freedom traded in the whiteness of their flesh and do not pass into white society (although a trip to France is totally acceptable), they might find happiness, but it’s highly unlikely.

Jefferson In Paris

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Released in 1995 during a particularly lush output from Merchant Ivory Productions, “Jefferson In Paris” is a study in ‘how to fit as many films as possible into one’. Indeed, the film seems to be four films in one, with each  relating only slightly to the others.
The film opens in a cabin in rural Ohio, with James Earl Jones narrating a personal history to a journalist. On the surface, this wouldn’t be an event, but as it stands, the personal history being relayed is that of Thomas Jefferson and his slave descendants, of which Jones’ character is one. The scene is brief, but seemingly sets the stage for what should be the story of how Jones and his relatives came to be. Instead, the viewer is thrust head long into a meandering historical drama about Thomas Jefferson and his time in Paris, which brings us to our ‘second film’.
Director James Ivory takes us on a well appointed, if visually staid, tour through Jefferson’s arrival in Paris, and his subsequent homesteading in a palatial manse inside the city. We meet Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Patsy, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and follow them as they insert themselves into French society at every level.
Though the film is titled, “Jefferson in Paris”, one would hope to find that there was more to the story than dinner parties and impromptu violin and harpsichord concerts, but our ‘second film’ takes the rather unexciting view that this aspect of Jefferson’s time in France is important to the viewer, even though not many of the motives for any of the characters’ actions are ever fully explained, or even hinted at. There is much non-captioned French dialogue, gesturing and the like, but the story is not ever really advanced by these scenes. Characters that are thinly drawn, or not drawn at all, compete for our attention with the subdued lighting and well made costumes and almost lull us into a Merchant-Ivory slumber.
The third bit of storytelling involves the oncoming French Revolution. The scenes, and that is what they are, a collection of scenes half-heartedly woven into the larger story for effect and not so subtle overtones on equality and emancipation , are such a jumbled mess, they hardly warrant mentioning, but they are distractions that serve to break up the action taking place elsewhere in the movie.
The real meat of the film is the ‘fourth film’, involving the arrival of slave Sally Heming and the youngest Jefferson daughter from Virginia.
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In an odd bit of film making, it’s the appearance of a slave character, one who should at least kind of embody the misery of her condition, that enlivens the entire production, even though she’s neither seen nor mentioned until an hour into the action. However here, Sally Heming, portrayed by the luminous Thandie Newton, seems only a slave ‘on paper’, as she flits and struts through the film with all the Southern charm of a belle awaiting her cotillion. The relationship between master and slave is one ease and harmony and when, in the final moments of the film, she is presented with the opportunity to become a free woman, she has a crisis like that of a lover who can’t fathom the thought of a break up. While the viewer may understand the difficulty of her position and the youth of the character, the film nevertheless portrays Sally as little more than a confused mistress, rather than an uneducated and exploited child/slave.
That the film insinuates it was Ms. Heming who instigated the sexual aspect of her unconscionable and utterly lopsided deal with Mr. Jefferson, is a slap in the face to almost EVERYTHING that has been reported about slavery in America. But, because the film is titled, “Jefferson in Paris” and not “Sally Heming in Paris”, we can only shake our heads and watch in disgust as the title cards roll, explaining what became of poor, little Sally and the future president.
The telling of the Jefferson/Heming relationship warrants its own film, and sadly, this is not it.