When President George H.W. Bush nominated Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991, controversy erupted almost immediately. Bush had been under pressure to select an African-American nominee, as the next person to join the court would be a replacement for the retiring Thurgood Marshall (the first African-American Supreme Court Justice). Thomas was indeed a black man, but his politics were dramatically different from Marshall's: he was a staunch conservative, and his nomination inspired protests from women's rights groups and civil rights groups. Still, it was expected that Thomas would have the support he needed to secure the position. Then, Anita Hill's testimony emerged, and a heated confirmation hearing reached a boiling point.

Hill – an Oklahoma law school professor who had worked for Thomas years earlier at the Department of Education and at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – alleged that Thomas had sexually harassed her with constant talk about graphic things he had seen in pornographic films and other inappropriate topics. Suddenly, the hearings became a far more lurid, tabloid-friendly affair, with phrases like “Who put pubic hair on my Coke?” and “Long Dong Silver” becoming instant cultural punchlines. Beyond the sensationalism, something bigger was happening: America was finally having a serious conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace.

The made-for-HBO drama Confirmation doesn't really have a lot of new perspective to bring to the matter, but generally proves to be a nuanced, smartly-condensed exploration of an intriguing moment in American history. The film's sympathies clearly lie with Hill (Kerry Washington, Scandal), but the filmmakers try to avoid tipping the scales: it doesn't offer any flashbacks that show us what “really happened,” and it doesn't manufacture any evidence to oversimplify things. Additionally, the film is clearly more interested in the big picture than in the specifics of this case: maybe Hill is telling the truth and maybe she isn't, but she's giving a testimony that resonates with women across the country.

The film is directed by Rick Famuyiwa, whose understandably eschews the delightful, free-wheeling inventiveness of his coming-of-age comedy Dope in favor of a more muted, conservative approach. He seems well aware of the fact that he's working with loaded material, and the film is at its least effective when it's required to imagine scenes that might have happened rather than recreating things that definitely happened. Thomas (Wendell Pierce, The Wire) and Hill speak most openly and persuasively when they're on the witness stand, as the film seems hesitant to put words in their mouths when they're behind closed doors (instead, they tend to stand and listen as vocal allies or enemies offer their opinion on the matter – note the scene in which Hill replies to an accusation against Thomas with a probably-affirmative but technically vague “MMMMM!”). To fill in gaps, Famuyiwa leans heavily on existing news footage: Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and other broadcasters of the era are constantly popping up to offer updates (I'd estimate that a good 20% of the film's running time is occupied by archival footage).

Confirmation struggles to reconcile its determination to stick to the facts with its desire to create compelling drama early on, but once the hearings actually get underway, the film transforms into a riveting re-enactment (the dialogue in these scenes is taken word-for-word from the court transcripts). The most fascinating thing about the two central performances is that both Washington and Pierce play their parts with utter sincerity, never giving even the faintest suggestion that either of these people might be lying (though one of them obviously is). Given that so much of the evidence available falls into the “her word against his” category, much of the hearing becomes an acting competition... and so does the movie.

In both cases, it's difficult to declare a definitive winner. Washington plays Hill as a woman who knows that every single word she utters matters: she speaks deliberately and precisely, as if she recognizes that one false step could destroy her. She does not come across as angry or vindictive, but as a woman who wants to clearly illustrate the way she was mistreated. Meanwhile, Pierce plays Thomas as a man who seems genuinely wounded by the accusations, and the testimony he offers – in which he refers to the proceedings as a, “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves” - is delivered with persuasive, righteous fury. Hill's lawyer (an excellent Jeffrey Wright, Source Code) dismisses Thomas' words as “political theater,” but performance is everything: the accusation of racism (despite the fact that his accuser is a black woman) puts the entire Senate on edge. Indeed, the person who comes off the worst isn't Thomas or Hill, but Senator Joe Biden (a surprisingly convincing Greg Kinnear, As Good as it Gets), who seems willing to turn a blind eye to a whole lot of things in order to just make this whole unpleasant situation go away.

Thomas was eventually confirmed (in a 52-48 vote that was largely split along party lines), but the hearings nonetheless marked a tidal shift in American culture. It's largely credited with playing a role in the passage of a landmark sexual harassment bill (one President Bush had previously suggested he would veto), and is also credited with playing a role in making 1992 the “Year of the Woman,” as a record number of women were elected to congress. Either Thomas or Hill was lying... but in different ways, both confronted the nation with an uncomfortable truth.


Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 2016