Before being sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice in 1991, Clarence Thomas first had to confront the truth. Anita Hill, then a professor at the University of Oklahoma, had accused Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked for him at the Department of Education and U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. For those who lived through Hill’s and Thomas’ testimonies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and even more so for those who only know the general story, HBO’s Confirmation turned out to be eye-opening.
With Kerry Washington in the role of Hill and Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas, the movie (directed by Rick Famuyiwa) focused on the nuance of an event for which the details—and its significant influence on sexual harassment laws in the workplace—were overshadowed by the spectacle. After watching on April 16 and taking it all in, Kara Brown and I talked about Thomas’ shameful history and all the players involved in a hearing that pit one powerful voice against a bunch of corrupt characters.
Clover: First off, I had to navigate past a Beyoncé preview of Lemonade on HBO Go to get to the movie, which made this an even more emotional night. Then watching it was of course upsetting. I was only eight when the hearings first happened, so I wasn’t one of the women who experienced it live. And my family didn’t talk about it like Kerry Washington said hers did. I read about Anita Hill years later. Do you remember hearing about it when you were younger?
Kara: I definitely don’t. I was about three years old when all this happened and I can’t remember it coming up later with my family. However, about two years ago I spent the day with Anita Hill when I was working on the press for her documentary. Obviously, by that time I was much more familiar with her story. Still, the most interesting thing for me was watching women coming up and thanking her and hugging her and expressing all this gratitude for what she had done. That—coupled with my grandmother’s reaction when I told her I’d be spending the day with Anita Hill—was what really opened my eyes to her legacy.
Clover: Yeah, it’s crazy how much influence she had and we don’t even recognize it, so the movie helped in that way. Like, the ending shows how sexual harassment laws were introduced in workplaces. All those poorly shot videos people have to watch at job orientations have a purpose. Since you spent the day with her, was she mostly like how Kerry portrayed her? To me, it felt like Kerry playing a meeker version of Olivia Pope (I can never not see Liv when I see her).
Kara: Oh my gosh, you’re so right about the Olivia Pope overtones! The fact that she’s a lawyer, in Washington D.C., wearing those power suits… It is definitely hard to un-see. I do think Kerry Washington did a great job. I remember watching Hill do all those interviews and I was so struck by how methodically she broke down the issues and described her experience—I’m sure that’s the lawyer in her. Anita Hill is certainly not a meek woman, but she is quiet yet very firm and clear about what’s being said. In that regard, I think Kerry Washington nailed it. At the same time, I never felt like I wasn’t watching Kerry Washington.
What did you think of Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas? In the lead-up to the release, I got multiple pitches from people wanting to explain “his” side of things and I may or may not have responded to one of them, “Fuck Clarence Thomas,” because my god he’s a terrible person in so many ways.
Clover: Haha. True, meek is the wrong word. Quietly firm is good. I love Wendell Pierce so much it was the hard watching this. ’Cause my hate for Clarence Thomas just zoomed up the further it went along. I kinda wish it was an actor I already disliked, like a Terrence Howard, playing him. But there was a moment where Wendell really sold it and it was when he took the stand (or whatever legal people call it) and started invoking all the race talk. Like, “high tech lynching” by “uppity blacks.” It’s hard to believe this dude really said those things. Wendell made me feel truly disgusted with him. And Jeffrey Wright. My fav line that I noted: “He only acknowledged race because it was about him.”
Kara: I SCREAMED AT MY SCREEN DURING THAT PART. It was so incredibly transparent that I actually can’t believe that worked. The other race “issue” that I found interesting was the suggestion that if Anita Hill had been white, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas would almost certainly not be a thing. YES YES YES to that Jeffrey Wright line. It reminded me of some of the discussions that have popped up about how black women have always been on the forefront of supporting black men, particularly when it comes to thinks like police violence, but that support is often not reciprocated. Watching him tear down this black woman by invoking ridiculous race metaphors was beyond infuriating.
Clover: Oh yeah, these were good tweets about that:
All those shots of his wife watching the hearing silently and just reacting were great.
Kara: Every time I think of his wife I remember this:
And I remember she’s just as terrible as her terrible husband.
Clover: Oh my god, yeah. It’s always weird to see movies and TV shows try to dramatize legal proceedings. It can turn out boring. I think this movie did pretty OK. One effective part was when they were questioning Anita and asking like (paraphrasing): well did he tell you he wanted to have sex with you. People always think harassment is as simple as a guy saying “Have sex with me or I will fire you.” When we all know it’s far from that. There was also this general aura of referring to her as “that woman.” Oh snap, Joe Biden! I def laughed when Greg Kinnear came on screen.
Kara: There was that one scene with Joe Biden I believe where he kept referring to Anita Hill (I think) as “kiddo” and all kinds of bullshit like that and it was such a good depiction of what women did and still have to put up with. How do you think Joe Biden came off? He seemed to get a pretty… generous depiction I thought.
Clover: Yeah he did. There’s this piece where sources said his people worked with HBO to “make changes that would reflect better on the vice president.” So hmmmm. I think he came across as a person who wanted to do the right thing but also didn’t want to be the bad guy, whereas in real life it was harsher. The archive footage helped as far as showing people’s intentions instead of interpreting it. Like George H.W. Bush, the news organizations and commentators and activists.
Kara: Good point. It was also interesting how Ted Kennedy ends up looking sort of like a hero. I have no clue how accurate that was. And it’s also sad that I’m using the word “hero” for simply stating a fact.
Clover: I remember reading about how people wanted him to speak up sooner or be more of a voice. This reminded me that politics is full of idiots. And Clarence Thomas just being a vehicle for conservatives. And him just playing right into it.
Kara: “Politics is full of idiots” is an excellent way to sum up so much of this. Meanwhile, Clarence Thomas is on the Supreme Court and voting to gut the voting right’s act. As much as this feels—and I imagine, felt—like a victory for women and Anita Hill, there’s still that ominous reminder that powerful men can still get away with so much. The only real result of this for Clarence Thomas was embarrassment while I imagine it had a much greater impact on Anita Hill for the good and bad.
Clover: And the idea of villainizing the victim still happens in so many ways. The “Who put pubic hair on my Coke?” was new to me.
Kara: Oh god.
Clover: There were a lot of details like that, that just illuminated everything.
Kara: I knew that from the documentary, but yeah. I hate how they made her repeat those incidents in order to embarrass her. The notion that she’s the one who should be embarrassed to recount her own harassment. Totally villainizing the victim.
Clover: This movie def came at a good time and almost felt like a documentary. I’m not sure there’s anything I hated enough to harp on (as far as movie-making).
Kara: Yeah same. It was a well-made movie with a lot of people I hated.
Image via HBO