“Confirmation,” HBO’s compelling new film about the infamous Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings, comes with a promotional tagline that, at first glance, perplexed me: “It only takes one voice to change history.”
That one voice, of course, belonged to young law professor Anita Hill, who came forward to accuse Thomas of sexual harassment. But I wondered: How did Hill, who is played with smooth conviction by “Scandal” star Kerry Washington, alter history? Thomas, after all, was able to fend off her damaging accusations and land on the high court, where he still sits 25 years later.
Thankfully, the solid screenplay by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) serves as a reminder that Hill’s explosive testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee triggered a national conversation about the way we perceive sexual harassment and victims’ rights. It also emboldened women to speak out about their workplace abusers while triggering a series of social, political and legal changes.
“Confirmation” arrives on the heels of FX’s drama about the O.J. Simpson murder trial and, like that highly addictive series, it whisks us back in time and recalls the details of a lurid spectacle that had us riveted to our TV sets.
It, too, contains a timely resonance when you consider that another Supreme Court vacancy is at hand and another rocky confirmation process awaits.
In 1991, after veteran Justice Thurgood Marshall announced his intention to retire, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas (played by Wendell Pierce) for the Supreme Court. He looked like a slam-dunk choice, until Hill reluctantly came forward.
With the eyes of a nation upon her, she claimed that, when she was a lawyer working for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas, her former boss, made unsolicited advances toward her, spoke regularly of pornography and his sexual prowess and boasted about his below-the-belt anatomy.
Mirroring Hill’s demeanor in those incendiary hearings, Washington is all grace under fire, delivering the graphic allegations in a calm, composed and measured manner while nailing every nuance. Pierce’s Thomas responds with indignant outrage, famously labeling the Senate hearings as a “high-tech lynching.”
“Confirmation” uses plenty of actual 1991 news footage that lends context to the film and reflects the mood of the country as the bizarre political theater played out. In one clip, NBC’s Tom Brokaw concludes that, “We have gone from shock and discomfort now to a combination of anger, depression and shame.”
Indeed, all those emotions are evident, especially as the film depicts Republican members of the all-male Judiciary Committee, led by Democrat Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear), scrambling behind the scenes to dig up dirt on Hill. Ultimately, Biden, looking to put a lid on the circus, refused to call other witnesses (including one played by Jennifer Hudson) who would have backed up Hill’s claims — a decision that essentially handed the narrow victory to Thomas.
As “Confirmation” winds down, the frustrated Hill camp is a picture of weary resignation, looking as if their efforts were all for naught. But somewhere out there, an angry feminist storm was gathering, and you can feel the changes coming in “Confirmation.”
3.5 out of 4 stars
When: 8 p.m., Saturday
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