HBOs “Confirmation,” a film about the famous case in which Anita Hill (Kerry Washington, “Scandal”) accused her former employer, Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce, “The Wire”), who would later be appointed an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court, of sexual harassment, grants the ordeal a sense of righteousness with context, nuance and scrupulousness, where often none of these attributes where present during the actual hearings, making the film not just compelling viewing but mandatory viewing.
The case itself, which lasted for three days in October 1991, was a lurid, graphic and, at times, farcical affair (where bogus questioning of Ms. Hill was concerned). Hill, who never wanted to go on public record, found herself in a hell storm after her FBI affidavit was leaked to the press and forced to testify publicly. Her testament became the stuff of legend, accusing Thomas of discussing topics of a sexual nature, which include the details of pornographic videos and the description of his genitals (I’ll leave it up to you to Google the rest).
The allegations against Thomas came at the cusp of him being confirmed as the successor to, then, Supreme Court Associate Judge Thurgood Marshall. Thomas’ name was often synonymous with words like “integrity,” “common sense” and “independence.” During the hearings, however, Thomas’ clean name was quickly besmirched. As soon as Thomas saw the votes shift against his favor, he pulled out the race card, accusing the committee of impeding an African-American’s advancement in politics, analogizing it to modern “lynching” and successfully derailing the conversation from the real issue.
For those unfamiliar with the events, it’s not hard to predict how the story ends. It seems unjust to recount the narrative of another woman of color who was treated poorly in a public courtroom, but “Confirmation” offers so much that extends the nuanced conversation of gender politics, exposes the unscrupulous nature of a male-centric political arena and highlights the contagious level of mansplaining that operates within the media. The film is not just a rehash of events, it attempts to showcase the risks, struggles and sacrifices of many people involved, with a moral compass that always aims in the right direction, something that cannot be said of how Hill’s testimony hearings were handled.
The film’s director (Rick Famuyiwa, “Dope”) does an excellent job, once again, of showcasing the hurdles of a minority protagonist who wants to escape his or her respected pigeonholes. In “Confirmation,” Hill refuses to feed the media’s labels of a woman with a vendetta or an evil feminist. She plays it cool, collected, laying out the facts with restrained pathos. Famuyiwa, working with a script by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), nicely oscillates between Hill being grilled inside the courtroom and outside where the media hounded her with vitriol, ironically pointing out the secondary level of harassment and abuse victims face when they come forward and how they’re usually portrayed as the villains, especially when the accused has achieved some level of prominence.
Washington leads the pack of a great cast with a stellar performance, proving why she’s one of the most employable actresses right now. Her eyes often betray how scared and timid her character is, but her conviction, especially during the first day of testimony, is sturdy, with unfaltering candor and believability. Hill comes across as being as strong as she is nervous, as capable as she is unsure and Washington nails all the subtle fluctuations in her character’s disposition.
Supporting Washington is a solid performance from Pierce, who once again plays a corrupt political employee (See: “The Wire”). Thomas is the ostensible malefactor in the film, but Famuyiwa and Grant allow him room for vulnerability, whether this is meant to translate as penitence or guilt is uncertain. To this day, Thomas defends his innocence, so it could be shame for getting caught. Either way, Thomas as a person – not so good, Pierce as Thomas – very good.
Also rounding out the cast is Jeffrey Wright (“Casino Royale”) who plays Hill’s lawyer, Charles Ogletree, one of the few men in the film not indifferent to women’s rights, Grace Gummer (“American Horror Story”) as Ricki Seidman, a political aide with a tenacity for doing what’s right rather than what’s inscribed in her job description and Greg Kinnear (“Little Miss Sunshine”) as, then, Judicial Committee Chairman Joe Biden, who had the not so easy task of portraying our current Vice President, a person, much like Gummer’s character, with diametrically opposed objectives. It’s a juicy role, but the performance will be forgotten as Washington and Pierce compete in the foreground.
Beyond the performances, what is most memorable and remarkable about the film is how closely it pays attention to the women and their voices. Whether it’s Washington explaining inequitable treatment by her former boss, or the group of female Senators who rallied behind her and demand that the committee delay Thomas’ confirmation to hear her out, or women discussing whether Hill should show more emotion or not, the filmmakers never paint the women with broad brush strokes. It’s all incredibly complicated and complex. Some of the best moments are quiet moments – looks of contempt, mistrust or disgust from women who must bite their tongue when their white-male counterparts speak their mind about Hill with little to no concern how this affects the women around them. The ubiquitous shot of these women (and occasionally, the perturbed male aide) looking vexed or upset is in its own way a defiance, not as voluble as Hill’s, but a silent stance on the sexism and male hegemony that dominates their work field and the litigious landscape that usually treats them as second class citizens.
At one point, one of the members of the Committee asks Hill why she waited 10 years to come forward with her allegations. One thing that is clear to Hill and to most of the women in the film is that it’s never too late to let one’s voice be heard when it comes to sexual harassment or any type of abuse, whether verbal or physical. It’s now been 25 years since Hill first spoke up about these atrocities; It seems HBO and the filmmakers agree that the time is always right to let those voices be heard.