Arguably the best thing about Confirmation, the HBO film about Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas during his 1991 Supreme Court nomination process, is the occasion to revisit those crucial and nauseating three days with the benefit of hindsight. Starring Kerry Washington as Hill and Wendell Pierce as Thomas, it’s a rousing reminder -- especially as we’re in the midst of another hyperpartisan battle over SCOTUS’s future -- of how politics carelessly wrecks anyone who gets in its way, as well as how change can happen without, or in spite of, those who hoard power.
Airing this Saturday night, the film is more a triumph of research than storytelling. Directed by Rick Famuyiwa, who made last year’s fleet and aggressively sexist Dope, Confirmation is a sleek but superficial retelling of the Senate judiciary hearings that gets weighed down by the sheer mass of detail. It’s an ADHD version of the story: There’s a whole lotta facts and trivia and archival footage, but sustained focus -- and thus something to connect to -- eludes the narrative.
The opening scene, for example, recalls the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court four years earlier, but why? Then-Senator Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear) rejects numerous opportunities to seriously investigate the multiple claims of Thomas’s sexual harassment — but why? Judy Smith, the D.C. fixer who serves as the inspiration for Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope character on Scandal, works for the Republicans, but why?
The closest Confirmation approaches to an overarching theme, other than the foregone conclusion that politics is just mud-slinging in suits, is the difficulty of speaking out about sexual impropriety. “When someone comes forward, the victim tends to become the villain,” says Hill, summarizing the lesson she’d learned while working under Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 10 years earlier. For that reason, the Oklahoman law professor is reluctant to testify against Thomas, particularly in front of the cameras.
What follows is an illustration of the hazards of not being a perfect victim -- which, of course, nobody is. Biden attempts to keep Hill out of the loop, thus strategically disadvantaging her, while the Republicans prepare for a “street fight” against the small-town professor. GOP senators Alan Simpson (Peter McRobbie) and John Danforth (Bill Irwin) ask her the kind of questions only someone who’s never been sexually humiliated could possibly ask: Why didn’t she report Thomas sooner? Could she have made it all up in her head? Does she understand what she’s doing by accusing Thomas of sexual harassment? Committing himself to the wrong side of history (and embarrassing his wife in real life), Simpson vows, with daydreams of tying Hill to the train tracks bubbling in his brain, “She will be injured and destroyed and belittled and hounded and harassed. Real harassment, different from the sexual kind.”
Washington mimics Hill’s stooped shoulders and drowsily professorial speaking style, but she doesn’t have a whole lot to do after her moving testimony scene, which arrives at the halfway point. Mostly she waits around while Biden, Ted Kennedy (Treat Williams), and their aides (Grace Gummer and Zoe Lister-Jones) attempt to outmaneuver the Republicans. In an inspiring display of persistent dignity, Washington’s Anita Hill winces and pauses and suppresses her queasiness as she reads aloud her recollections of Thomas’s tales of his sexual prowess and the kind of porn he likes. Susannah Grant’s script blanches from the worst of the ignominies Hill was forced to endure (the 2013 documentary Anita chronicles those much more exhaustively). But Confirmation is firmly on the side of its quiet, hesitant heroine, especially after the Democrats find another woman (Jennifer Hudson) who could help support Hill’s claims.
But the film doesn’t condemn Thomas, either; it simply has no idea what to do with him. Best known for playing the saltily sweet Detective Bunk Moreland on The Wire, Pierce portrays Thomas as innocent and indignant in the film’s first half and guilty but calculating in the latter -- he simply becomes a different person midway through. The fault lies not with the actor but with Famuyiwa and Grant for failing to find the character’s through line.
That’s a particular shame because, on paper at least, Clarence Thomas holds the most narrative promise. Many of us, including the makers of this film, have already assigned an identity to Anita Hill as a feminist trailblazer who paved the way for women to recognize and report sexual harassment. Thomas’s inner life, though, is an intriguing mystery: What’s it like when the spotlight you’ve been seeking all your life is suddenly fixed on your worst self, and your most intimate sexual fantasies are exposed to the entire nation due to your own indiscretions? Does he regret the harassment, now that it’s come back to kick him in the teeth? How does it feel as an African-American pioneer (as the second-ever black judge to be nominated for the Supreme Court) to be defended by the likes of the segregationist Strom Thurmond? Confirmation is maddeningly uninterested in asking these most basic of questions.
What does come through is Thomas’s outrage, particularly in the judge’s notorious description of the Confirmation hearing as “a high-tech lynching of uppity blacks.” Pierce plays Thomas as baldly evaluative as he utters those inflammations, looking up from his papers at each senator’s face to ensure he’s producing the effect he intends. Beyond his performances in front of the Senate and his trusting wife, Ginny (Alison Wright), though, his white-hot anger at his treatment is a reaction to no known source in a story that’s convinced Hill is telling the truth.
Frankly, Hill deserves better than an incurious, unfocused, side-stepping wisp of a film like Confirmation. Having educated America about sexual harassment at the hearings and galvanizing more women to run for office, her accomplishments far exceed the need for such a disappointing trophy.