In 1991, then-President George H.W. Bush nominated hyper-conservative judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Thomas was expected to pass the Judiciary Committee hearings without much of a fight. There were whispers that Thomas had sexually harassed former employees, but Ted Kennedy, fighting a sex scandal of his own, and Joe Biden, who didn’t want to bring up what he viewed as ‘gossip’, planned to ignore the rumors. But then, NPR’s Nina Totenberg broke the story that law professor Anita Hill had described in graphic detail Thomas’ harassment of her. The news exploded, the Thomas hearings stalled, and Hill was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in what was one of the largest media firestorms in American history. This firestorm, and the political maneuvering that surrounded it, is the focus of HBO’s newest original film, Confirmation, directed by Dope‘s Rick Famuyiwa.
While this story is about Anita Hill (played here by Kerry Washington) and Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce), they are hardly the primary characters. Instead, much of the film focuses on the political maneuverings of the Senate Judiciary Committee, particularly Senators Orrin Hatch (Dylan Baker), Ted Kennedy (Treat Williams), Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear), John Danforth (Bill Irwin), and Arlen Spector (Malcolm Gets), as well as their associated staff. They drive the drama and fundamentally make all of the decisions that push the story forward, deciding who can speak and when. Viewers watching at the time may have seen clips of the proceedings; dedicated viewers may have seen the grandstanding from a Committee that understood they were playing to the cameras. Confirmation‘s greatest strength is that it digs in to why we saw what we were shown – and, more specifically, what we were not shown.
Merely by the nature of the story, Confirmation delves pretty heavily into subjects of privilege, power, and the limitations of white supremacy. To its credit, the script, by Susannah Grant, doesn’t shy away from these topics, though it is limited in the amount and manner in which it can approach them by the biopic structure. Early in the proceedings, Clarence Thomas famously called the trial a ‘high-tech lynching’, noting the echoes of stereotypes about black male sexuality and using these stereotypes. It was a powerful moment at the time and one that went largely unchallenged, but Confirmation smartly digs in to the fact it was primarily black women making accusations against him – this wasn’t a racial thing. However, as one character notes, the group of old white men tasked with getting to the bottom of this were spectacularly ill-equipped to have an educated discussion about race and stereotyping. It was a minefield the Democrats didn’t want to wade into and, as the film shows, the Republicans understood that and used it to their advantage.
The nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court is the sort of travesty that, in a just nation, would have never occurred, and Confirmation is an excellent portrayal of why that is. It’s not because Thomas definitely did harass Anita Hill, though of course she has no reason to testify if it is untrue; the movie lets you read your own narrative into events. It is because, in order to push a hyper-conservative extremist onto the court, Republicans at the time decided that American citizens were expendable. Their reputations, their livelihoods, their futures were all worthy sacrifices on the altar of politics, of winning another fight. And Democrats let them, because their own careers were more important than the lives of their citizens. Thomas’ place on the Court isn’t a bad thing because he’s a shoddy jurist, because he isn’t; it’s because the fight to put him on there at all costs turned the Supreme Court into an overtly partisan body. We must be able to trust in the impartiality of our courts, and this made it that much harder to do.
Confirmation is not a great movie, largely functioning as a well-acted rehash of the news at the time. But it is a quintessentially American movie, one that gets at the heart of how we think about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and a man’s reputation. Films about sexual harassment and assault tend to shy away from ambiguity; we like to think of rapists as monsters, inhuman fiends who strike from the shadows without any control. We like to think we’d know. Witness after witness is paraded before before the committee in Confirmation, and they all say the same thing: The Clarence Thomas I know could never do such a thing.
But how well can you know someone? My family knows a lot about me, but they don’t know anything about my sex life. My best friends don’t know what kind of erotica I read. My lovers don’t know what I fantasize about unless I decide to tell them. What is in our heads is, by and large, unknowable, so character witnesses aren’t terribly reliable. Rapists aren’t those mythic monsters prowling the street in black hats, villainy clear to all who see them. They are, instead, our neighbors, our friends, our brothers or sisters, our sons or daughters. Someone may be a great person to me, and an awful person to someone else, because they happened to like the shirt I was wearing when we first met, because they knew me before they got shitty, because we both read the same book.
In an ideal society, things like circumstantial evidence come into play. Witnesses, other victims, that sort of thing. These are the things Anita Hill’s defense tries to use. But because it is such a serious allegation, other questions start to arise. Is Clarence Thomas – a dignified, highly intelligent man and passionate public speaker – really the kind of person I picture when I hear the term ‘sexual harasser’? What will this do to his future? What if she’s lying, or was provoking this attention? What does it say about me if I stood up for him and he could do this? If I’m a good person, and I like him, doesn’t that mean he’s probably good too?
These questions get in the way of so many trials about rape and sexual harassment. Ultimately, too many of them boil down to this question: Who do I want to win? What do I have invested in this conflict? As Senator Danforth says in the film: “This is a street fight, Joe. And if a friend of mine is attacked in a street fight, I’m gonna pick up a crow bar.” The Thomas hearing was never about finding the truth. It was never about upholding the sanctity of the Supreme Court. It was about winning, or at least making sure the other side lost more than you did. As Confirmation argues quite powerfully, that’s not justice. That’s a broken system trying to justify remaining broken.
Confirmation was written by Susannah Grant and directed by Rick Famuyiwa. Produced by HBO Films, Confirmation stars Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce, and Jeffrey Wright.