If this election season hasn’t convinced you that Washington is an ugly place, Confirmation will. HBO’s original film about the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings is a quietly powerful portrait of institutional dysfunction in the face of an uncomfortable truth.
We hear the clicks and flashes of cameras before we see anything onscreen, an indication of the scrutiny Confirmation’s protagonist, Anita Hill (Kerry Washington), is about to endure. Like The People vs. OJ Simpson — another highly anticipated fictionalization of a ’90s-era judicial conflict — Confirmation is smart to resist flashing back to the events in question. Rather, the film’s action unspools chronologically, from the moment Thurgood Marshall resigns and Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce) is announced as the next Supreme Court nominee.
In the 2013 documentary Anita, Hill, speaking 20 years after the events that inadvertently turned her into an icon for working women in America, stressed that she never intended to court controversy by speaking out about her relationship with Thomas in the 1980s. Hill, then a young lawyer, worked with Thomas at the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and followed him soon after he left to become chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1982.
Confirmation shows Hill being dragged into the hearings reluctantly, only after she receives a phone call from Ted Kennedy aid Ricki Seidman (Grace Gummer), who tells her she’s heard that Thomas “mistreated women” when he worked at the EEOC. Thomas repeatedly denies the allegations, even in private, and though the film does little to cast doubt on them, it remains sympathetic to his dilemma. After all, as he tells his wife, Ginny (The Americans’ Alison Wright), “These men, judging me, half of them are under an ethics cloud at this very minute. You don’t see their lives going up in flames, do you? Do you? No, they’re going to be just fine.”
The choice to leave the action in 1991 rather than flashing back to ten years earlier makes sense not just on an aesthetic level. All that back-and-forth would have added unnecessary flab to this lean, compact film, but it also would have confused Hill’s own message. In Anita, Hill reiterates that she wasn’t trying to prove that Thomas did in fact make unwanted advances and crude sexual jokes to her when they worked together in the 1980s; she was simply telling the Senate Judiciary Committee what happened to her, with the belief that they would want to know what kind of man they were about to elect to the country’s highest court. Confirmation hammers this point home: “I never came to the press,” Hill says. “The press came to me.”
Washington is wonderful as Hill, painting a portrait of a fiercely intelligent and idealistic woman that stands as a much-needed counterpart to TV’s most prominent political bad boy: House of Cards’ cynical Frank Underwood would have you believe that no one in D.C. is motivated by a desire to do right by the American people.
Washington’s voice, so full of fire and bluster as Scandal’s Olivia Pope, is calm and measured as Hill. She speaks slowly, deliberately, like a teacher; if anything, her voice betrays a little more anger than Hill’s did on that stand, her brow a little more furrowed than Hill’s was. The film rightly pays homage to this unwitting hero, panning up slowly as Hill buttons up her now-iconic turquoise suit on the day of her testimony. Screenwriter Susannah Grant includes a meaty portion of that testimony, word-for-word (you can watch it on YouTube), which provides momentary respite from the yip-yap of the judiciary committee. For all their attempts to characterize Hill as a bitter, scorned woman with an axe to grind, the senators come off as a bunch of wrinkled old men with so much power, doing everything they can to discredit a private citizen.
Throughout Hill’s testimony, director Rick Famuyiwa (Dope, The Wood) cuts to people watching it on TV, including Hill’s students at the University of Oklahoma, the all-black kitchen staff at a restaurant, and a group of women working at a commercial laundry. These viewers aren’t given any lines, but their presence speaks volumes; the cutaways recall an earlier scene in which Famuyiwa cuts between Thomas defending himself as an “honest, decent, and fair person” at the hearing and Hill speaking on the phone to Seidman about her history with Thomas. By juxtaposing the institutional power of the hearings with the quieter power of two women talking on the phone about an abusive man, the scene renders visually the significance of the hearings for so many ordinary working women.
Confirmation also features a scene-stealing performance by Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden. The film shows a bumbling Biden trying his best to keep the hearings from becoming, as Thomas famously called them, “a circus.” Although he doesn’t come off as malicious as senators Alan Simpson and John Danforth, Biden is portrayed as a man of his generation—when he first hears about Hill, he asks why she didn’t come forward ten years ago, and whines, “Can we just let it go?” “You know how Biden is about this type of thing,” Carolyn Hart, (Zoe Lister-Jones) a Biden aide, tells Seidman.
As Biden, Kinnear provides some welcome comic relief. He nails Biden’s “aww, shucks,” one-of-the-fellas tone, and a running gag about a chronic toothache (Biden really did undergo two root canals — in the middle of the night — during the hearings) brings him down to earth. Anita balks when he tells her she has to testify in three days; “Aw, kiddo, I feel for you, I really do,” he responds, and Kinnear lets you both believe him and believe that he’s being a shmuck.
The film, true to the events it portrays, ends with more of a whimper than a bang. Tired of the media attention and sick of having her motivations questioned again and again, Hill tells her legal team that this is exactly why she never came forward in the first place. “I want to go home,” she says.
Confirmation closes with another reminder of the limited influence of private citizens in the face of institutional power: Hill returns to her office at the University of Oklahoma and finds boxes upon boxes of letters waiting for her. She opens one and reads it out loud; it’s a thank-you note from a woman who works as a cashier and whose boss “has treated me like his personal property” for years. The film closes with news footage showing the 1992 election of several women to the Senate, as if to emphasize the idea that ordinary citizens can leave an extraordinary impact.
Of course, Hill was not just an ordinary citizen. Confirmation is a testament to her strength and courage, her refusal to back down. But Washington’s casting also draws attention to the fact that Hill is another black woman who had to be “twice as good,” something that the fictional Olivia Pope’s father famously told her growing up. Hill was the perfect witness, calm, controlled, and unwavering in her testimony. Even so, her allegations weren’t enough to derail Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court.
Today, powerful men who are accused of sexual assault are rarely punished for it — this movie premieres just weeks after the Jian Ghomeshi trial found the popular media personality not guilty on all charges of sexual assault, despite the official testimony of three women and the anecdotal evidence of many, many more. Confirmation demonstrates the difficulty of reconciling actual human behavior with a judiciary system that has such rigid and antiquated assumptions about sex. That system may not deliver justice, but as this film shows, it can still be a powerful conduit for the truth.
Confirmation premieres Saturday, April 16 at 8 p.m. on HBO.