First Run Features // 1995 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // March 15th, 2005
"We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead." -- Thomas Jefferson
During the last couple of decades, the popular image of Thomas Jefferson, America's third president, has undergone a dramatic change: from the brilliant scholar and inventor, forger of nations, and author of perhaps the single most important document in our country's history, the Declaration of Independence, he became a byword for hypocrisy and exploitation upon the discovery of DNA evidence that established the likelihood of his having fathered children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. This 1994 documentary by Martin Doblmeier grapples with the much-remarked paradox that the author of the words "all men are created equal" kept hundreds of slaves during his lifetime (of which he freed only three). Subtitled "a documentary about race, slavery, and the new nation," this thought-provoking and thoroughly researched film is not content with snap judgments or surface assessments, delving instead into the sometimes contradictory heart of Jefferson's relationship to, and personal feelings about, America's slave system. Using many images and documents from Jefferson's lifetime, from formal portraits to political cartoons, and with readings from such esteemed actors as Danny Glover and Sissy Spacek, Thomas Jefferson: A View from the Mountain is an engrossing and admirably thorough look at a volatile subject.
Crucial to our understanding of Jefferson's place in the issue of slavery is an understanding of the status of that abhorrent institution during Jefferson's lifetime, and the documentary does a fine job of examining the introduction of slavery into America, the considerations that perpetuated (and militated against) it, and politicians' varied and evolving attitudes toward it. Since Jefferson lived into his 80s -- an astonishingly long life for that era -- he lived to see significant changes in the perception of slavery, and the film does a fine job of filling in this context for us. Jefferson's own place in the debate is less easy to pin down. We learn, for example, that as a very young man and a new politician he argued for the abolition of slavery, only to face a humiliating defeat that would haunt him for the rest of his political life. His fervent belief in the equality of humans in their natural state, the equality he asserted in the Declaration of Independence, would seem to have been contradicted by his hypothesis about African racial inferiority as set forth in his only published book, but he protested when others tried to use this assessment as grounds for the perpetuation of slavery. His own reasons for continuing to keep his slaves (many of which were inherited from his father-in-law) rather than freeing them seem to have combined many different impulses: a businessman's pragmatism, a paternalistic sense of responsibility, and anxiety that freed slaves could never coexist peacefully in the same nation with whites due to the lingering memory of the treatment to which they had been subjected. At one point, he observed soberly, "justice is in one scale, self-preservation in the other."
The notorious liaison with Sally Hemings even emerges in new complexity, since evidence has emerged to suggest that Hemings was very likely the half-sister of Jefferson's beloved wife, and some historians speculate that a physical resemblance between the two women may have attracted Jefferson to the much younger woman. The DNA evidence that supports the likelihood of this relationship (discussed at greater length in a segment listed under the extras as an interview with Dr. Gene Foster) is supplemented by other documentary evidence to fill in the picture of likely events. Segments like this one demonstrate the admirable technique of the documentary, which is not to force a set of beliefs upon us but to provide enough evidence and context for us to make our own judgments.
The picture of Jefferson that emerges is carefully, admirably balanced, enhanced by the input of many scholars, historians, and political figures, and effectively presents the complexity of both the man and the issue with which he is now so firmly associated. It's also illuminating to discover the role that the huge debt he inherited from his father-in-law played in forming Jefferson's beliefs about personal freedom. The only area where I feel the documentary is less than sufficiently thorough is in the question of the kind of lifestyle a freed slave could anticipate during Jefferson's lifetime. Since the documentary points out more than once that Jefferson did not follow the example set by some of his contemporaries and free his slaves, I think it's important to know what freedom meant in practical terms in order to draw conclusions about his decision in this regard.
Visual quality for this release is adequate, with some dirt and grain appearing on the print, but audio emerges with clarity, and the music on the soundtrack has admirable dynamism. The nosegay of extras includes a self-introduction from Doblmeier, the "director's corner," in which he describes the considerations that inspired him to make this documentary, talks about his film company (Journey Films), and plugs his documentary Bonhoeffer, which is represented by one of the two included trailers. One directorial choice that surprised me is Doblmeier's decision to himself take on the role of onscreen narrator and tour guide; with such esteemed actors involved in the film, it seemed a slightly eccentric choice, but Doblmeier is a confident speaker in front of the camera, and if he is not as charismatic a presence as a professional actor, he nonetheless acquits himself decently, if not spectacularly.
This is the kind of documentary that I am very encouraged to see. It doesn't try to reduce the complexities and contradictions inherent in human actions to simple matters of (literally) black and white; its focus is not to preach but to educate and illuminate. By the time it was over I had learned a great deal about my own country's past that I hadn't known before. Its substantial length, unfortunately, may prevent this film from being aired in schools, but it would be an excellent addition to the curricula of American history classes. Although it presents some sobering, even shocking information, it also leaves one with the heartening knowledge that Jefferson's most influential legacy is one we can all be proud of: His assertion that "all men are created equal," despite all the debate and contradictory interpretations it evokes, continues to resonate as a standard to which America aspires.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interview with Dr. Gene Foster
* Director's Corner
* Director Bio
* Journey Films Site