For those of us who witnessed them, the US Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings of October 1991 will remain forever etched in our memories. For three days, the hearings were broadcast live across every channel on the dial. We watched with bated breath as Clarence Thomas, George H. W. Bush’s beleaguered nominee for the Supreme Court, defended himself against charges of sexual harassment levied by Anita Hill, a former employee who’d worked as his personal assistant 10 years earlier. It was reality television at its inception; far more compelling than the latest string of flashy adaptations of real-life legal dramas: Netflix’s Making a Murderer, FX’s The People v. OJ Simpson. The story’s characters were archetypal: Thomas with his barely concealed rage; and Hill, a 35-year-old law professor at the University of Oklahoma, who was so measured, so thoroughly composed that it was unnerving.
Now, 25 years later, HBO has recreated that historical moment with the film Confirmation, directed by Rick Famuyiwa, which premiered Saturday night and features Kerry Washington (star of ABC’s Scandal) as Hill. (Washington also served as executive producer on the film.) Confirmation is a story for a new generation of viewers—many of whom have most likely never heard of Hill, and possibly not even Thomas, and can scarcely imagine how difficult it must have been at that time for a woman—much less a black woman—to come forward publicly with a claim of sexual harassment against a nominee for the Supreme Court.
The film is worth watching for this reason alone. It’s always surprising to me when my journalism students at Hofstra University don’t know where the courtesy title “Ms.” comes from, or when they didn’t realize that in my lifetime women couldn’t get a mortgage or a credit card without a husband or father’s signature. It’s important that they know this history, that they know how routine it was (and still is) for male superiors to harass female employees sexually.
Confirmation clearly takes Hill’s side in the matter, portraying her as a courageous and morally impeccable hero. But in 1991, the evidence wasn’t so clear.
While Clarence Thomas enjoyed President Bush’s support throughout his ordeal (“100 percent behind him,” as Bush put it in the film), when it was all over, only 34 percent of the American public believed Hill.
Nevertheless, Hill stood her ground in the face of public interrogation by a Senate committee made up of 14 white men. She told about Thomas’s repeated attempts to date her when she worked at the Department of Education and, later, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She claimed that he regaled her with descriptions of pornography he’d seen showing women having sex with animals, graphic descriptions of his own larger-than-average sexual anatomy, commentary about women with large breasts, and explicit details of his sexual activities. Then, in one of her most troubling recollections, Hill said that Thomas once complained, aloud, in the office, about finding a pubic hair on his can of Coke.
These moments are all relived brilliantly, in all their strangeness, in the film.