DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Jefferson in Paris, Thomas Jefferson


Title: Jefferson in Paris

Release Date:  1995

Nationality and Language: France, English/French

Running time: 139 min

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Distributor and Production Company: Touchstone/Merchant Ivory

Director; Writer: James Ivory, Ruth Power Jhabvala

Producer: Ismail Merchant

Cast:  Nick Nolte, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tandie Netwon, James Earl Jones, Greta Scacchi

Technical: Full 1.85 to 1  Panavision Lens

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site:  slavery, involuntary servitude, under-age, interracial


One of the questions of history concerns whether Thomas Jefferson (Nick Nolte) really did have a sexual affair with a teenage (15 years old) slave Sally Hemmings (Tandie Newton) that accompanied him to Paris. The film starts when Madison Hemmings (James Earl Jones) interviews Polly in Ohio in 1871 in a rustic winter scene. Madison mentions that it was against the law (or “subversive”) to teach Negro slaves literacy skills, out of fear that they could rebel.  Discussion about bloodlines ensures, and whether things unspoken about really happened. They did. Most if the film is in flashback to Jefferson’s ministry in Paris in the years leading to the French Revolution. And most of the film deals with other matters, such as the influence of the American Revolution on the French. There are plenty of nifty images, such as Jefferson’s polygraph, a device that kept his manual penmanship in line, or another one where a toy guillotine is demonstrated on an asparagus stalk (the guillotine had just been invented). There is an ideological discussion of property rights, and whether they are inimical to happiness. At the end of the film, Jefferson would agree to set his own slaves free when he returned, but Sally would stay at Monticello.


It’s important that Jefferson was already a widower, having lost his wife in childbirth of Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow), as women in that era often died giving birth. He builds a friendship with Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), who complains that her husband cannot satisfy her, an implicit statement that her husband was homosexual. So the whole movie seems to be about the split between public discussions about lofty ideas about liberty and morality, and the private practice within families, which is a lot more complicated.


Thomas Jefferson (1997, PBS “American Stories”, dir. Ken Burns, 180 min) is an instructive biography of the Third President that presents troubling facts about his use of slaves and his attitude about slavery. Jefferson apparently wrote that “Negroes” were biologically inferior, and claimed body odor and the sparseness of body hair in adult males (when compared to Caucasians) as “evidence.” This justified the idea that the patriarchal master justifies his position by “taking care” of others who have less social status or (in the beliefs of the time) “ability.” The film goes on to cover Jefferson’s stay in Paris and his presidency. See this link for notes about Burns’s Lewis & Clark film, which involved Jefferson. I will try to rent and review the 1995 Touchstone film “Jefferson in Paris.”  Blogger.

Thomas Jefferson: The View from the Mountain (2004/1995, First Run Features, Journeyman, various cable networks, dir. Martin Doblmeier), emphasis on the slavery issue. Blogger.

Thomas Jefferson’s World (2009, Monticello, 16 min) Visitor’s center film. Blogger.





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