WCW: Thandie Newton

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The reason why we picked British actress Thandie Newton for the focus of today’s Woman Crush Wednesday actually has some layers to it. First of all, we’re all fans of Ms. Newton here at Frock Flicks HQ, and as such, we would like to celebrate her contributions to historical film and television. Secondly, she is a woman of color, who has been outspoken on the topic of being a woman of color in Hollywood. This is timely, obviously, because of the absolute shitshow that is white America’s understanding of systemic racism, and therefore, I will simply use Ms. Newton’s own words throughout this piece. And finally, you will notice that there is not a lot of costume content listed below. Why is that? Well, Ms. Newton sums it up in the Sunday Times:

“I can’t work, because I can’t do Downton Abbey, can’t be in Victoria, can’t be in Call the Midwife — well, I could, but I don’t want to play someone who’s being racially abused. I’m not interested in that, don’t want to do it … there just seems to be a desire for stuff about the royal family, stuff from the past, which is understandable, but it just makes it slim pickings for people of colour.”

 

Flirting (1991)

“I was involved in a relationship which really relied on my insecurity, so that I wouldn’t ever think, ‘What the fuck am I doing with an old bloke?’ And that insecurity was fueled all the time. ‘It must be because you’re black.’ Seriously. ‘Don’t worry about it because I’m here to …’ Bollocks! ‘It’s because I’m 18 and you’re 41. Everyone’s looking at us because this sucks. And I’m thinking they’re looking at us because I’m black.’ Isn’t that fucking awful?”

 

Interview With the Vampire (1994)

“I get this stuff here in Hollywood. Really high-powered people who make really, really, really dodgy suggestions about what it is to be black. Honestly, it would leave your mouth open. It’s stupid, stupid, stupid!

 

Jefferson in Paris (1995)

“I believe wholeheartedly that she did have Jefferson’s children, and there was never any thought in my mind that that was fabricated. I wouldn’t have been involved in the filmmaking if I believed that. It’s very coldhearted that people feel so ashamed that Jefferson would have had this relationship. It’s difficult, you get into these racist attitudes — the Jeffersonians say, ‘This is disgusting, how can you mar him like this?’ Are they saying that it’s so wrong for him to have a relationship with a black woman? Or that this is a man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who wrote, ‘All men are created equal,’ and yet he kept slaves?

 

The Journey of August King (1995)

“OK, so why have I not got the cover [of Vogue Magazine]? And I resisted race. Because I don’t even use the term ‘race’. I resisted it, I resisted it, I resisted it … And then I had to accept it.”

 

Beloved (1998)

Beloved (1998)

In order to do justice to a role like this, you have to go all the way. Playing Beloved meant that day after day, I had to expose so much of myself in a way that was sometimes undignified, deeply unflattering and even viciously cruel. You have to use your own resources, and discover what you potentially can be capable of.”

 

The Interrogation of Leo and Lisa (2006)

“I was ready to quit because I was very frustrated with how women are portrayed on screen. Very often these movies were written by men. I’d kind of had enough. I’m older. Life’s too short.”

 

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)

“So I look at [Olanna, her character in Half of a Yellow Sun] and want to absorb the sense of place that she has, which I’ve kind of never been entitled to, I guess, growing up in England. A lot of ignorance and confusion, not from me, but in perception. Can I be British if I am black? It’s a thing!

 

Westworld (2016-2020)

“My decision to play this role was a result of conversations we had about what they wanted to create with the show, the provocative material, which was going to be a conversation about what it means to be humane, what defines life, and do you value that life. Those are all questions that I’ve been asking myself for a very, very long time. My social activism, my activism for women’s rights, which takes up a huge proportion of my time, but wasn’t my day job. So suddenly my day job was going to be turned into telling those stories and potentially go on for a number of years, I was like, ‘Count me the fuck in.‘”

 

What’s your favorite of Thandie Newton’s historical film and TV roles? How much of a bad-ass is she?

33 Responses

  1. Roxana

    Sally Jennings had at least one child by a Jefferson man, it may have been Thomas but there are other possibilities. But if T. Jefferson was sleeping with Sally it was no great, doomed romance. She was specially treated yes, but so were the other members of the Hemmings family. She doesn’t seem to have been singled out in any way.

    Reply
    • DRush76

      So, it’s possible that Jefferson had allowed other members of his family to sleep with Sally.

      Reply
      • Roxana

        Very possible. His brother Randolph was known to socialize in the slave quarter.
        I’m not a huge Jefferson fan, it’s no skin off my nose if he slept with his slave women, but it’s worth noting that the charge he had a slave mistress came from a yellow journalist making a political attack and that every particular he gives from Sally’s appearance to her offspring is in fact quite wrong.

        Reply
    • LisaS

      She was enslaved and enslavers enforced the condition on black bodies by force of law and by arms. Ms. Hemmings was unable to freely refuse and walk away from her situation without risk to her life. Paint it any way you want…it was rape. Thomas Jefferson raped Sally Hemmings. Jefferson made the CHOICE to rape a woman who had no choice about her enslaved condition short of suicide.

      Reply
      • Roxana

        Exactly. Like I say I’m no Jefferson fan, even if Sally expressed willingness it would have been because it was her best choice given her limited options. Anyway you slice it this was no great romance, whichever Jefferson sired Sally’s children. BTW there are other families who claim to be descended from Jefferson and a slave mistress.

        Reply
        • Elise

          “Slave mistress” or “enslaved woman whom Jefferson regularly raped”?

          The term “mistress” has a connotation of choice (even though realists know that there would always be a power differential that muddied the relationship) But I understand that anti-racist terminology refuses to euphemise the sexual brutality

          Reply
          • Roxana

            Yes. They claim to descendants of rapes. I don’t know if any of those other stories are true. But I have become impatient with attempts to romanticize Jefferson’s relationship with Sally, if it existed, as some kind of romance.

            Reply
    • Lady Herminia De Pagan

      Please remember that Sally Hemmings was the half sister of Martha Wyles Jefferson. Her mother was Betty Hemmings and her children were fathered by Martha’s father, who acknowledged they were his. Sally was the youngest child and was considered “high yellow” and almost passing because both her mother and grandmother were mixed race. She was 15 when Martha “gave” Sally to Jefferson as a mistress since she was too sick to take care of her wifely duties. Yes I’m gagging at the thought.
      Now back to Ms Newton. There is no reason whatsoever for her not to be cast in Historical Dramas set in England. Several ladies of color, described as Moors, were part of Katherine of Aragon’s Court. Could you see her playing the bitchy aristocratic Victorian lady?! Imagine her trading barbs with Lady Mary?! There are so many more stories to tell then slaves and oppression. Better yet, her playing Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre since she was originally meant to be a POC.

      Reply
      • Karen K.

        I would love to see Ms. Newton in more historical roles. There WERE POC in Victorian England, they just seem to be erased from costume dramas, and that’s a shame. I absolutely would have loved her in Jane Eyre or Wide Sargasso Sea (prequel written by Jean Rhys). It was adapted into a film in the 1990s but the lead was played by Karina Lombard, who is part Native American. I think it was remade again in 2016 with Rebecca Hall as Antoinette Rochester.

        Reply
        • Roxana

          There are some good potential stories in Roman ladies of color like Ivory Bangle Lady. And there is similar evidence, ie: bones, for black people in medieval England who were not slaves but held some status and were apparently accepted members of the community. Racial ideology hadn’t formed yet in the middle ages. Provided they were practicing Christians a person of color would most likely have been faced with curiosity rather than hostility.

          Reply
      • Roxana

        I’m sorry, that’s not true. Moors and Spaniards were bitter enemies in the 16th century with centuries of bad blood between them. Five hundred years before there had been a possibility of coexistence but the Almoravid invasion put paid to that.
        Catherine of A had two Ethiopian slaves, one of whom was a woman or girl named Catalina who was an intimate servant of Catherine. It would be possible to write a very interesting story about the relationship between these two young women. Catalina may have come to England as a slave but she was a free woman when she returned to Spain to marry a free black man and eventually settle back in her home town. Catherine and Catalina went through the terrible period between Arthur’s death and her marriage to Henry VIII together. You could show the relationship changing as an increasingly desperate Catherine came to depend on Catalina as a confident, and see her more and more as a person, even a friend. Leading to her freeing Catalina end ending with her regretfully agreeing to Catalina’s return to Spain because that’s what her friend wants.

        Reply
      • M.E. Lawrence

        Well, not precisely. Martha Wayles Jefferson died in 1782, when Sally was about 9. Whatever Jefferson did, there’s no evidence he was a pedophile. I agree that Thandie Newton would be brilliant as the real Mrs. Rochester. I wish she had had a chance at the same role in the 1993 “Wide Sargasso Sea” when she was younger.

        Reply
      • Maggie May

        Martha did not give Sally to Jefferson. She died, leaving him heartbroken. He was named envoy to France and took his oldest child, Martha, with him. Then deposited her in a convent school. Mary and Lucy Elizabeth were very young and stayed with relatives in Virginia.

        Lucy Elizabeth died and TJ sent for Mary; Sally Hemngs, 14 years old, accompanied her. Mary joined her sister in the convent and Sally stayed with TJ.

        Jefferson had amused himself in Paris by flirting with sophisticated married ladies, artist Maria Cosway chief among them. He wrote her about a painting he had seen: Adriaen van der Werff’s Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham. In which the elderly Sarah presents her husband with a nubile, seminude slave girl. TJ wrote that he would gladly take Abraham’s place. He had acquired the Hemings family (and much debt) from his father in law. Did he imagine his dead wife offering her half sister to supply the attentions that the sophisticated married ladies had withheld?

        Martha informed her father that she wished to convert to Catholicism and become a nun. He grabbed his daughters from the convent and took them to lived with him. Then the menage returned to America, to TJ’s public life and the women to the constrained lives allotted to them.

        Mary, who was said to resemble her mother, married and had a baby. Then died. Martha was more like her father. Her husband had financial and other difficulties, so they family moved into Monticello.

        After her father’s death, Martha freed Sally.

        Reply
    • Hooley

      It is extremely conclusive that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ children.
      Sally Hemings’ family were half siblings to Martha Randolph Jefferson, Jefferson’s wife, through Martha’s father. So the Hemings were singled out favorably as they were already family members. She came to Monticello with her siblings as part of their half sister’s slave dowry. The DNA evidence shows only a Jefferson male had to be the father (Thomas had no male descendents), and there is no evidence that any other potential Jefferson candidates were at Monticello during the time frame of Sally’s conceptions. It is also known that Sally’s two eldest children could pass for white and that Jefferson himself gave them money and helped them slip away into the white world, which I would consider favoritism. I do agree that it probably wasn’t a great doomed romance — but I do think Jefferson was drawn to Sally as she was his wife’s half sister. Which is an unpleasant and incestuous thought. For more details, read the statements at the Monticello web page — https://www.monticello.org/thomas-jefferson/jefferson-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-a-brief-account/monticello-affirms-thomas-jefferson-fathered-children-with-sally-hemings/

      Reply
  2. LadySlippers

    I applaud your WCW choice. She is amazing in so many productions. But I also love and appreciate her willingness to speak about subjects that so many shy away from.

    Reply
  3. Susan Pola Staples

    Her Sally Hemmings was so powerful and i too believe she bore Jefferson’s children and also believe that all of her children were his, too. What is also known is that Sally was his late wife’s half-sister and she resembled Martha Jefferson a great deal. And I don’t remember TJ having living male relatives at the time Sally was at Monticello. His eldest daughter, i believe, married a Randolph. No I don’t think he allowed others to sleep with her.

    I really need to see the other flicks, bc her modern stuff is amazing.

    What we need is a Coretta Scott King miniseries with her as Coretta Scott King.

    Reply
    • Elise

      …allowed others to rape her”, not sleep with her.

      Slavery should be described as horribly as it sounds.

      Reply
  4. Andrew Schroeder

    I loved her as Sally Hemings. I wish the whole movie had been about her.

    Reply
  5. Shashwat

    I have not seen any of her historical roles ,but her modern roles are simply marvellous.
    As someone interested in history,fashion and social structure through the ages,I find it ironic that humans suffered centuries of oppression under the hands of religion and monarchy,and the revolutions that were seen as the ultimate manifestation human capabilities became meaningless after so much struggle.From monarchy to republic,republic to democracy,colony to sovereign state,each transition was seen as an era of new aspirations and dreams.And each time humanity could only watch its hopes getting shattered.We learn about “the modern world”,but I can not see through its modernity through the clouds of misery that we are all suffering.We criticize the past when health options were limited and childbirth was a step away from death,and yet we don’t allow women to have abortion in the earliest stage of gestation.We mock the plague doctors of the past and yet we find ourselves so helpless in the face of a pandemic.We talk about equality,yet we subconsciously demean others for being different.Life seems to be just a struggle where each each day you have to pray that you don’t get prosecuted because of some narrow minded people.The problems seem to have only increased,not lessened in any way.
    I have not gone through such discrimination in its direct form in my school life,but whenever the question of caste based reservation(for backward clases)comes up in my class,some overenthusiastic opponents who are literally squandering their parents’ money talk about progress on basis of “innate merit”.Because I am academically the top scorer of my class,they say how I am “praised” for not being like “them” despite belonging to a backward caste.If that isn’t demeaning a caste for being academically weak,then I don’t know what it is.When such subconscious discrimination goes unchecked in schools,the life outside is just hopeless.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Back when the film came out in the mid-1990s, it was still a radical and hotly contested “theory” in historical circles. The quote is Thandie responding to the controversy at the time the movie came out that was definitely a legit and real thing that was happening. It is now accepted (after fucking DNA tests proved conclusively once and for all, ffs) that the “vicious rumors” were true and Jefferson had fathered Sally’s children.

      My bad for not including that context. I’m old enough to remember the knock down, drag out fights that were happening in academia over this topic, so I didn’t think to include an explanation.

      Reply
      • The Scrivener

        I went to the University of Virginia, graduated in 2007, and it was still A Thing then. There was a student club that made “Tommy Hearts Sally” shirts, supposedly ironic/whimsical.

        Even this article from the Hook (alternative newsweekly, the progressive town paper) has really not aged well: “Citing Hemings’ age at the time the relationship began– 14– Cooper says thinking and talking about what happened can be difficult since one possibility is it was rape.” (possibility? is there any other possibility when one sexual partner is 14 and literally owned by the other?)

        http://www.readthehook.com/85652/news-presidential-campaign-changing-views-tom-and-sally

        Reply
      • Roxana

        The DNA only proved that a Jefferson man sired Sally’s youngest son. Thomas surely belongs on the list of suspects, in fact is the most probable, but there are other
        possibilities. DNA also proved that the progenitor of the accomplished and successful African American family the Woodsons, was not a Jefferson descendant. This is not surprising as there is no evidence outside of James Calendar’s political attacks that Black Tom ever existed. Sally had four children not five.

        Reply
  6. Lily Lotus Rose

    My favorite of her historical roles is her all too brief role in Interview with the Vampire. Even though she had very little screen time, she did an excellent job in conveying the vulnerability and constant state of threat people of color faced at the hands of whites at that time. Even if Lestat and Louis hadn’t been vampires, her character would have been in just as much danger from them. Her only other historical role that I’ve seen is Beloved, which I loathed. Jefferson in Paris and The Journey of August King have long been on my To Watch lists, and this post just bumped them up.

    As a woman, she’s always been in the category I call Impossibly Beautiful Women. For a long time I was meh about Thandie Newton as an actress. Last year she took part in the Hollywood Reporter’s round table discussion series and an in a discussion with Oprah, and subsequently I became much more impressed with her and wanted to make an effort to see more of her work. I know that one of her daughters has made a foray into the acting world as well; she was in last year’s darling live action version of Dumbo. It will be interesting to see if her daughter picks up the baton on some of the same issues as her mother.

    Reply
    • Lily Lotus Rose

      Ok, I’m replying to myself! I just watched the short play The Interrogation of Leo and Lisa on YouTube. (It’s approximately 15-minutes long.) Thandie Newton looked beautiful as ever. This play belongs to a didactic category of “plays” that work best for the junior high and high school set. As such, this play was typical in that the premise and the character under examination were interesting, but the execution was lacking.

      Reply
  7. Fran in NYC

    There’s a great book by Annette Gordon-Reed, “The Hemmingses of Monticello” that analyzes the whole family and it’s roles at Monticello and in Jefferson’s life. By the standards of the day, the family had some privileges there. All of Sally’s children were quietly freed. Judging by Sally’s forebears, she might have been very light so she could have resembled her white, half-sister.

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      A brilliant historian, Annette Gordon-Reed. She’s also written “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” and is on Monticello’s board of trustees.

      Reply
  8. Rori

    I didn’t know she played Sally in that movie.

    She definitely deserves her Emmy award a few years ago, and I hope she gets to be in more historical films with roles that are desirables for her. After watching a video that tackled on strong black woman archetype, I can see why it would be more hesitant for any PoC actors/actresses to be in a period drama.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      Depends on the location. Plenty of potential period stories in North Africa. The Empire of Mali for example.

      Reply
  9. Emma

    Fabulous post. I would have liked a little more depth about the costumes, but I really respect your decision to let Ms. Newton speak for herself.

    Reply

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