The filmmakers set out to document progress, and show how far we have to go to achieve equality
It’s hard to believe that 25 years have passed since law professor Anita Hill appeared at Clarence Thomas’ explosive Supreme Court confirmation hearings, declaring to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Thomas, her former boss, had sexually harassed her. With issues like race relations, victims’ rights and gender still resonating today, HBO Films is hoping to educate a whole new generation of viewers by exploring the history of what happened with their upcoming film, Confirmation, which premieres on April 16th.
Scandal star Kerry Washington plays Hill and is also executive producing. “It was such an important moment in our country,” said Washington at the premiere. “It was one of the first times that we all stood still and began to partake in what we now think of as a 24 hour news cycle. You know, we never think twice about it now, but we didn't engage in public affairs in that way in the early '90s, in '91. So these events really transformed the way we even consume news.”
And back in 1991, Thomas seemed like a lock for a seat on the Supreme Court until NPR broke a story about a former employee of Thomas’ named Anita Hill who had accused him of sexual harassment. Hill had told Senate staffers about her experience with Thomas, and the FBI and Senate Judiciary Committee were brought in to question both parties about the allegations. The FBI produced an inconclusive report about the incident, and it would have likely been lost to time had NPR not unearthed the story.
Following that report, a second round of confirmation hearings were called for to examine the allegations against Thomas and to allow Hill to testify. Hill told the committee that Thomas had spoken to her about, “Acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes.”
When it was his time to take the stand, Thomas furiously denied Hill’s claims and decried the hearing as, “A high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you.”
Despite being only 14 when the hearings took place, Washington remembers processing the entire affair through the lens of my parents, saying that, “They had really complicated ideas about it because they were both black but different genders. It was a really interesting time in my household and with my parents and their friends.”
Washington added that one of her goals in making the film was to create a dialogue around sexual harassment, a dialogue that is even possible now, in part, because of the events that inspired Confirmation. “It changed not just the national but the global conversation, and that is an outcome that we all felt was really important,” Washington said. “We wanted to make sure that that conversation continues, because some of those issues have evolved enormously.”
Before filming began, the cast had to go through sexual harassment orientation. Washington calls that experience “a little bit surreal” considering the role that the hearings played in bringing about such protocols in the first place. It was important to the filmmakers that they not only document a historical event, but put into perspective how relevant the topics of the film still are in 2016, “Some of the issues are still rearing their head in terms of gender and race and how we understand those things,” says Washington. “The outcome of what happened was that the conversation began and we want to make sure it continues.”
Wendell Pierce, who is perhaps most famous for playing detective William “Bunk” Moreland on HBO’s landmark series The Wire, has the dubious honor of playing Thomas. And he has a vivid memory of the legal theater and its accompanying media frenzy.
Hill at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in 1991
“I distinctly remember being glued to all of the hearings and used to watch it late night in my home, when the different witnesses had come in. I was fascinated,” explains the veteran actor, who hopes that viewers will come away from the film with a heightened sensitivity to how they approach interpersonal relationships “What's great about doing a film like this is the role of what film is supposed to do. We have a conversation as a society, as viewers of the film, to say what are our values? What do we consider important? One of the roles of the film is to pose that question and challenge our value system.”
For his part, Director Rick Famuyiwa – who signed onto Confirmation fresh off the success of his Sundance Film Festival darling, Dope – remembered watching the hearings when he was a freshman in college. He started as a political science major before moving to film school. “It was really relevant, and when I read the script I felt like I had to tell the story,” says Famuyiwa. “The process to confirm a Supreme Court justice is so tough and baked into our consciousness that when you throw two regular people into that mix, there's going to be a lightning storm. So I think as these individuals that went through it, they had to deal with the weight of the confirmation process. It brings out emotion. It brings out humanity. It brings out all sorts of things in people, especially when it was as hotly contested as this one was.”
In the end, of course, Thomas was confirmed by the narrow margin of 52-48, but regardless of whom you believed in 1991, the conversation around sexual misconduct was never the same in America again. In a 20-years-later retrospective about the hearings, NPR reported that, “The number of sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission nearly doubled, then nearly tripled by 1997 and kept growing until 2001.”
The number of women in the Senate also went from two to five in the next election cycle, and with Hillary Clinton making a play for the Democratic nomination in this year’s presidential race, Confirmation is coming at the perfect time to remind us all how far we’ve come in the way we deal with women in media and in politics – and also how much farther we have left to go.