By: Angelica Bastien
The 1991 hearings involving the public accusation from law professor Anita Hill toward then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas is ripe for exploration because of how it explicitly deals with conversations of race, gender, and sexual politics that have reached a fever pitch recently. Unfortunately, while the film, Confirmation, which aired on HBO this past weekend, is well-made, it’s more concerned with extolling the facts rather than dealing with the nuance behind them. Once the credits rolled I was left with the feeling I watched an artistically and intellectually hollow Wikipedia entry come to life.
It’s clear early on that Confirmation falls victim to the same issues seen in many biopics and docudramas with its reliance on interweaving real news footage throughout. The footage helps give a picture of the political and social climate of 1991. But it also creates an emotional distance between the audience and the actual story. Clarence Thomas (Wendell Price) appears to be the likely replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall after his nomination from George H.W. Bush and the successful hearings led by Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear). But in researching Thomas’ background, a case of potential sexual harassment from a former employee comes to light. Anita Hill (Kerry Washington), is introduced as reluctant, even fearful about the likely professional and personal fallout of speaking against Thomas. But when she weighs her own personal safety against the incredible power and influence Thomas will have on the Supreme Court, she decides to speak up.
The film sets up the narrative quickly to focus on the more interesting dynamics at play when Hill goes public and the way this dramatically shapes the lives of everyone involved. Confirmation impressively recreates America of 1991 but this attention to detail is expected from television today. The failure of the film is ultimately because of the screenplay by Susannah Grant, which doesn’t probe the racial, sexual, and gender aspects of the story with much depth.
Grant touches on the uncomfortable racial implications of a committee of white men deciding the fate of a black woman reckoning with her workplace assault and a black man up for one of the most powerful, long running positions in our government. We watch as men like Biden and Ted Kennedy (Treat Williams) discuss the case behind closed doors and wince when Thomas uses the term “lynching” to describe the proceedings. But these moments are too brief.
There’s a lot of drama that Grant is either uninterested in or aware of. Why isn’t any attention being paid to the fact that while Thomas has a white wife, all the victims we learn about happen to be black women employees he could easily manipulate? Why don’t we see Hill interact or be meaningfully supported by other black women in more than just passing? The last point is what I found most upsetting since, as Melissa Harris-Perry writes for Elle, the film “[gives] the impression that it was primarily white women inspired to meaningful action by Hill’s testimony.”
In this manner, Confirmation embodies the very tired issues I’ve seen play out in real life where feminism centers white women even when it shouldn’t have to. Director Rick Famuyiwa isn’t able to elevate the material. The flair and vibrant stylization of his Sundance hit Dope (2015) is wholly absent. If anything Famuyiwa’s work comes across as a bloodless, work-for-hire gig. His bland approach and Grant’s surface level depiction of the material don’t do justice to a story that needs a bold touch.
Thankfully, the actors are more than game to elevate the material they’re provided. Pierce embodies the unwavering ego and belief in his own innocence that Thomas but sidesteps making him a simple villain. As Charles Ogletree, Hill’s legal advisor, Jeffrey Wright has the most fun performance that mixes equal parts empathy and cunning. If there is one sour note in the ensemble it is Kinnear’s broad portrayal of Joe Biden. But the most transfixing performance comes from Kerry Washington.
While I have enjoyed Scandal in the past, it’s pretty clear that Washington’s work on the show doesn’t really stretch her abilities as an actress. Which is why I was so surprised by Washington’s portrayal of Hill. She’s able to embody the humanity and internal conflict of the character. Unlike her work as Olivia Pope, Washington’s strongest moments in the film are her quietest like when we watch the play of emotion on her face that let’s us know her decision before she speaks a word. Watching Washington, I couldn’t help but wish it was part of a different film that actually lived up to this incredible central performance.
The failing of Confirmation, in both its screenplay and direction, is that it’s too polite. The problems of sexual harassment in the workplace, rape culture, and how that affects black women in particular are not polite subjects nor should they have to be. It’s only at the very end that any parallels are made between what happened to Hill and the progress made since then in regards to women speaking out.
In trying to be even-handed (although it does lean toward siding with Hill), Confirmation lacks the passion and perspective needed. This failure feels especially infuriating because Confirmation is coming at exactly the right time in history and pop culture as we discuss matters of diversity, gender dynamics and feminism.
I can’t help but wonder if the film was directed and written by a black woman how different it would be. In her Elle article I quoted earlier, Perry writes, “In specific and substantive ways, her story belongs to a history of black women in America and to black feminists determined to speak for themselves even at enormous cost.” This is why Hill’s story both during the hearings and their aftermath remain incredibly important. Unfortunately, Confirmation lacks the artistry, audaciousness, and intelligence necessary to do such a vital story justice.