“Sleazy,” is how Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy recently described the hyper-partisan politics currently on display around the stalled nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. That word is also an apt descriptor for the events surrounding the 1991 confirmation hearings for SCOTUS nominee Clarence Thomas and what amounted to the trial of his sexual harassment target Anita Hill. HBO Films revisits the historic moment on Saturday night with Confirmation, a retelling that avoids heavy-handed polemics while revealing the political machinations that vilified Hill to ensure Thomas’ place on the court.
Confirmation: A standout cast helps revive history
Kerry Washington (Scandal), as Hill, and Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme), as Thomas, star in the film, which opens with archival news clips offering a view of the sociopolitical landscape at the time. The failed confirmation of 1987 Reagan SCOTUS nominee and uber-conservative Robert Bork has left Republicans angry and Democrats wary of another political battle. Civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first and only African-American justice, has announced his retirement due to advancing age. President H.W. Bush’s nomination of then-federal judge Thomas, a black man whose whose politics could not be more divergent from his predecessor, is applauded by conservatives. At the same time, African-American civil, women’s and reproductive rights advocates immediately call for a rejection of the nominee. “Clarence Thomas is an insult to the life and legacy of Thurgood Marshall and everything he stood and worked for,” Patricia Ireland, then executive vice-president of NOW, states in footage from the era.
Thomas’ confirmation is nonetheless proceeding smoothly into its final stretch when a background check results in a call to Hill, a former employee of the judge who’s now a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma. The young attorney is reluctant to reveal her harassment by Thomas, about whom there have long been rumors of inappropriate behavior toward female employees, informing her questioner that “when someone comes forward...the victim tends to become the villain.” Reassured her affidavit will be kept private, Hill recounts the litany of graphic sexual comments Thomas subjected her to. Her remarks are of course leaked to the press, thrusting Hill—and the topic of workplace sexual harassment—into the national spotlight.
The film follows the ensuing timeline of events, detail by troubling detail. We watch as the women of the House are forced to insist on a Senate investigation of allegations against Thomas; the carefully orchestrated, White House-backed smear campaign against Hill; the stunningly botched Senate Judiciary hearings; Republicans’ disgraceful behavior throughout the proceedings; and the shameful inaction, and arguable complicity of Committee Democrats—led by then-Chair, Senator Joe Biden—in Hill’s character assassination.
Pierce and Washington give remarkably nuanced and believably human performances, instead of the caricatures less capable actors might have offered. Washington superbly recalls the composure Hill maintained in the face of humiliating and often irrelevant questions posed by a panel of white men who seemed to have little interest in getting to the truth. Often dressed in a near-replica of Hill’s iconic turquoise suit, the actress’s portrayal evokes empathy, indignation and above all, respect for Hill’s unshakable endurance, even as we see how the smears took their toll off-camera.
Pierce, too, deserves accolades for making Thomas seem three-dimensional. It’s a testament to the actor’s craft that the character is fleshed out beyond pure villainy, despite historical hindsight and an enormous body of evidence stacked against him. Clearly, director Rick Famuyiwa wasn’t interested in carrying out the takedown of Thomas he undoubtedly could, and arguably should, have.
A partisan political circus
The filmmaker is particularly apt at showing how the politicians tasked with overseeing the case failed miserably on every count. Orrin Hatch (Dylan Baker) suggests, with theatrical gravity, that Hill’s accusations are taken from a passage in the book The Exorcist. Alan Simpson (Peter McRobbie) goes with the classic crazy-woman trope, stating that multiple anonymous sources warned him to “watch out for this woman,” then denigrates the entire proceeding as “sexual harassment crap.” Arlen Specter suggests to Hill that she must be confused, fantasizing or delusional, in an exemplary show of gaslighting that preceded the behavior being given its own name. Senator John Danforth (Bill Irwin), Thomas’ old friend and former boss, maneuvers behind the scenes, pulling out every stop to cast doubt on Hill’s sanity and believability.
GOP politicians may have actively turned the trial into a circus, but their Democratic cohorts mostly passively watched. Treat Williams plays Senator Ted Kennedy, whose own familiarity with public sex scandals made him wary of risking indignity by too full-throatedly calling out mistreatment of Hill. Greg Kinnear is fairly excellent as Biden, who from the moment he learns of Hill’s accusations is resistant to fully investigating Thomas. During the hearings, the committee head did little to mitigate or even address Republicans' over-the-top attacks on Hill. By standing down, Biden failed to conduct the most basic due diligence in ensuring justice and truth would emerge.
“I think [Biden] did two things that were a disservice to me, that were a disservice more importantly to the public,” Hill said in a recent interview. “There were three women who were ready and waiting and subpoenaed to be giving testimony about similar behavior that they had experienced or witnessed. He failed to call them. There were also experts who could have given real information, as opposed to the misinformation that the Senate was giving, who could have...helped the public understand sexual harassment. He failed to call them.”
"His race and my gender": The SJC's failure to think intersectionally
Thomas famously denounced the hearings as a “high-tech lynching,” a cynical use of racism to negate the sexism at the heart of the accusations against him. It’s fitting that the man who benefitted from affirmative action but has dedicated his career to its eradication, opportunistically leveled the charge when it aided him despite disparaging other African-Americans for decrying the issue. Both before and since those hearings, Thomas has done everything in his power to pretend racism doesn’t exist, including silently but intently whittling away at civil rights legislative gains that helped him attain his current position.
Hill has since pointed out that Thomas’ remarks made the proceedings “about [his] race and [her] gender,” as if the two issues were discrete and exist on a sliding scale of importance. In fact, Thomas effectively exploited the erroneous idea that racism denigrates only black men and sexism solely affects white women, a notion that effectively erases black women and their experiences—including the dual and intertwined forms of oppression they encounter—from the conversation.
“Here I was, an African-American woman essentially being accused by Clarence Thomas of provoking his lynching,” Hill told Rolling Stone this month. “Historically, that is just a fallacy. There is just no evidence that African-American women had ever had the power to call for someone to be lynched. Secondly, it ignores the history of sexual abuse of African-American women...Seventy percent of the public when they were polled after the hearings believed Clarence Thomas [and] were willing to dismiss my experience as insignificant, both racially and in terms of gender. People say, 'Well that was really more about his race,' but in the eyes of the Senate, it was about his gender. It was about male privilege. Who do you believe? You believe the guy who is a guy like you. And I think that is where the Senate came in on that.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar who coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the unique way in which systemic sexism and racism overlap in the lives of black women, was a key figure on Hill’s defense team. In a 2014 interview with the New Statesman, she noted that during the hearings, “African-American women feminists were trying to say, ‘you cannot talk about this just in gender terms— you have to be intersectional—there is a long history you cannot ignore."
Washington, who also served as an executive producer, was 14 years old at the time of the hearings and saw them as a rare divisive topic in her household. The actress also reports the neglected issue of intersectionality was among the reasons she was interested in taking on the project. “In my house, we were always on the same page when it came to issues,” Washington recently stated, according to Variety. “These hearings came along and my father was engaging in these very specific ways, watching as an African-American man’s reputation and his career was being stripped from him, and my mother was identifying as an African-American professional woman. It was one of the first moments that I became aware of my own intersectionality in terms of race and gender. I belong to a couple of boxes, and they might be at odds with each other.”
The current Republican backlash
Screenwriter and executive producer Susannah Grant told the Washington Post that insights were gathered from more than “40 people connected to the hearings” and that filmmakers “consumed countless memoirs, articles and televised accounts.” To ensure its veracity, many of those players were given early versions of the script to review. While Confirmation is not a documentary (check out 2014’s Anita if that’s what you’re looking for), Grant and others behind the production say they worked diligently to get things right.
However, Danforth and Simpson have strenuously objected to the film, reportedly even threatening to sue HBO over “distortions,” though the movie seems to give every character a more even-handed treatment than anyone gave Hill during the hearings. All these years later, Simpson still seems dubious about the very existence of sexual harassment, at least based on statements he made during a 2014 interview with WNYC.
“I’d had a wife who’d had much more harassment than Anita Hill. And that’s when I lost my marbles,” Simpson said. “I thought, ‘What is this? I mean, for God’s sake, what did he do?’ Well, nothing. ‘Did he touch you?’ No. What is it? ‘He wanted to talk about Long Dong Silver and pubic hair and coke cans.’ Is that it? Is that it? ‘Yes, it is. I wanted you to be aware of his behavior.’ And so I was a monster. I was just pissed to the core.”
The presence of these sorts of attitudes on the Senate Judiciary Committee helped shape the nation’s opinion—primarily for Thomas and against Hill—and did a tremendous amount to aid the judge’s ascension to the court.
“Despite the fact that Hill took and passed a lie detector test, the two sides were no match for each other,” said NPR’s Nina Totenberg, who broke the story, according to the Washington Post. “The Thomas forces, frantic but unified, marched together to a strategic tune composed by Thomas and Danforth and orchestrated by the White House. Hill’s forces, inexperienced, in disarray, and with little or no support from Senate Democrats, were left to flounder. When it was over, public opinion polls showed the people believed Clarence Thomas by a margin of two to one, a ratio that would reverse itself in less than two years.”
Hill's legacy, and familiar SCOTUS fight
With the complete turnaround of public opinion in Hill’s favor, attitudes around workplace sexual harassment also began to notably shift. As the Establishment points out, “Hill’s bravery single-handedly brought sexual harassment into the public consciousness. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings, sexual harassment cases have more than doubled in the wake of the case, from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996; over the same time period, awards to victims under federal laws nearly quadrupled, from $7.7 million to $27.8 million.” Those numbers are a testament to Hill’s legacy, and the importance of Confirmation in ensuring its recognition.
Senator Patrick Leahy, one of the few who spoke out on Hill’s behalf (“I think Anita Hill was telling the truth," Leahy told the Seattle Times back in 1991. "It wasn't a search for the truth. It was a search to try to smear Anita Hill."), recently contrasted the Republican refusal to move forward with Garland’s nomination with the Democrats’ behavior, even in the midst of partisan conflict, back then.
“There is also a poignant lesson from those hearings for this very moment,” Leah said, according to the Washington Post. “There was a Democratic majority in the Senate at the time and a Republican in the White House. In sharp contrast with what we’re seeing today with the [Merrick] Garland nomination, with a Republican majority calling the shots, no one back then blocked Clarence Thomas from a hearing, from a committee vote, or from a floor vote. After those revealing hearings, when the committee voted to disapprove the nomination, the committee still sent Justice Thomas’s nomination to the floor and the full Senate so that all senators could uphold their constitutional duty. We followed precedent, and we felt a responsibility to respect it.”
Though she has become a hero to many, Hill dealt with continued assaults on her character in the years following the hearings. Republican operative turned left-leaning media watchdog David Brock admitted to including "virtually every derogatory and often contradictory allegation" in his American Spectator writings about Hill, with the goal of making her seem "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." (Brock now says a 1993 book he wrote to malign Hill was full of misrepresentations and denigrating information on Hill’s backers provided indirectly through Thomas.)
In 2007, Clarence Thomas wrote a memoir in which he assailed Hill as his "most traitorous adversary,” a charge to which Hill responded in a New York Times column, “I will not stand by silently and allow him, in his anger, to reinvent me.” In 2010, Thomas’ wife left a voicemail for Anita Hill asking her to recant her testimony, a baffling suggestion and overstepping of boundaries for the ages.
Yet Hill, today as yesterday, has taken the high ground, while remaining honest and forthcoming. "I'm really at peace with my role in history,” she said in a recent interview on the Today show. “I don't think I have to become at peace with [Thomas] being on the Supreme Court.”