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The Washington That Failed Anita Hill

'Confirmation' is a political procedural that traces the injustice done to Anita Hill at Clarence Thomas's 1991 Senate hearing.


The first scene in Confirmation, HBO’s film about the 1991 Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, is grainy news footage: Robert Bork is nominated to the Supreme Court then rejected by the Senate; Thurgood Marshall announces his retirement and George H.W. Bush prepares to announce a successor. This fast-paced prologue, told through clips from CNN and the nightly news, sets the stage for what follows: A well-made movie about a sensational moment in history that aims for the detached authority of a news report.

Confirmation arrives on the heels of American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, which is both a blessing and a curse for the production. Ryan Murphy’s miniseries stoked an appetite for meticulous recreations of 1990s scandals; stories that remind us of the nuanced racial and gender dynamics behind the media spectacles of the recent past. Murphy’s series also set an unreasonably high bar for this kind of drama. Unlike The People v. O.J. Simpson, which deftly used tabloid appeal and melodrama to complicate its narrative, Confirmation plays everything straight. The nightly news anchors of the 1990s—familiar faces like Tom Brokaw, Andrea Mitchell, Candy Crowley, Peter Jennings—appear throughout the film like a Greek chorus, providing exposition and reminding us of the narrative stakes. It’s a two-hour made-for-TV movie after all, a genre that doesn’t typically allow for much experimentation or swagger.

Still, the film, directed by Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) and written by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) is gripping and necessary. Twenty-five years after Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and was smeared as a “scorned woman” and an “erotomaniac,” her story is still alarmingly relevant. (This is not the first time Hill’s story has been filmed for premium cable: In 1999, just eight years after the hearings, Showtime aired Strange Justice, adapted from Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson’s book of the same name.) Confirmation is a political procedural, not a psychological drama, and the two main characters remain opaque, despite fine performances. The film’s focus is institutional failure: how the Washington of 1991, with a Senate that included just two women and a Judiciary Committee made up entirely of older white men, was set up to fail someone like Anita Hill.

Anita Hill was a 35-year-old Oklahoma law professor who reluctantly became a household name in October 1991. As Hill, Kerry Washington quickly erases any lingering thoughts of savvy, theatrical Olivia Pope from Scandal. (In a strange coincidence, the real-life inspiration for Pope, Washington fixer Judy Smith, was deputy White House press secretary at the time, and she is played in the film by actress Kristen Ariza.) Washington’s Anita Hill is judicious, every word she says carefully considered. She speaks slowly, with long pauses; slouching forward, she walks like someone who wishes no one were looking at her. Asked on the phone by a Senate investigator if working at the Education Department and the EEOC with Thomas were good experiences, she answers deliberately, “I was proud of things we accomplished.” When she puts on what would become her iconic teal dress, the camera lingers as she stands in front of the mirror, fastening the oversized buttons. In that moment, the linen skirt-suit looks like body armor.

While Hill is the film’s moral center, Confirmation doesn’t belong to her. Frieda Lee Mock’s insightful 2013 documentary Anita focused on Hill’s experiences during and after the hearings, portraying her on a hero’s journey from hesitant martyr to feminist role model. During the hearings, Hill was sarcastically accused by a witness for Clarence Thomas of trying to be the “Rosa Parks of sexual harassment,” and Anita grants her that title proudly. Confirmation, on the other hand, is narrowly focused on the political process and tries not to tip its hand too explicitly.

Clarence Thomas is portrayed with empathy by Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) as a husband and father; a black man terrified that powerful, hypocritical white men will ruin his career. In advance publicity for the film, the director and screenwriter have been frustratingly insistent that the film takes no sides. “It’s hard to know what the truth is,” Famuyiwa told Mother Jones last week. Even after repeated probing, no one involved with the film has just come out and said, “I believe Anita,” even though it’s hard to watch the film and come to any other conclusion.

This equivocating hasn’t prevented Confirmation from being attacked by some conservatives as liberal propaganda. That’s ironic, since the film’s real villain isn’t Thomas, who is presented as almost a figure of pity; nor is it Senator John Danforth, Thomas’s close friend who led the charge to smear Anita’s name; nor odious Republican senators such as Alan Simpson and Strom Thurmond; nor Kenneth Duberstein, a White House aide played ineffectually by Eric Stonestreet. The most infuriating character in Confirmation is Joe Biden, not because he’s hostile to Hill (he isn’t), but because the figure of male power he represents—benign, feckless, incurious—is one that’s still so familiar to women, especially within liberal circles.

Biden, in an uncanny impersonation by Greg Kinnear, is a man out of his depth as soon as the issue of sexual harassment is raised. When he’s first informed of Anita Hill’s allegations by his legislative aide (in a nice performance by Zoe Lister-Jones), he reacts with irritation. His immediate response is the expected one: So he didn’t touch her? Why she didn’t come forward earlier? What if she’s lying? Practically whining, he asks, “Can we just let it go?” It’s not that he doesn’t believe sexual harassment exists and it’s not that he doesn’t believe her. In two separate scenes, he complains to a staffer that he doesn’t want to look like the bad guy on this. “Aw kiddo, I feel for you,” he tells Hill before she has to testify, and he means it. For Biden, the details of the hearing—pornographic films and pubic hair and sexual accusations—are sticky and distasteful. Wouldn’t it just be easier for everyone to move on? Why do we have to keep talking about this?

The week of the hearing, an editorial in the New Republic scoffed at the idea that “Senator Biden and his colleagues did not pursue the issue solely because they are men and therefore unable to deal with issues important to women.” To believe that such a thing as a “white male viewpoint” existed was “reverse sexism,” the magazine editorialized. There’s less of that kind of thinking now. Anita Hill wouldn’t have had to tell her story to 20 white men with little understanding of what sexual harassment was. A more diverse committee might have been less cowed by Thomas’s talk of “high-tech lynching,” and might have more easily remembered that Hill was also black. That’s something, at least.