Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa
Premise: Based on true events. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce) to a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Law professor Anita Hill (Kerry Washington) testified against Thomas’ character, claiming he had sexually harassed her.
What Works: Confirmation delivers everything that viewers would look for in a legal and political drama. Although it doesn’t take place in a courtroom, it has the feel and structure of a legal procedural and it uses the strengths of that genre to create drama. Courtroom stories often eschew the legal technicalities that usually characterize real life judicial proceedings in favor of pomp and performance. In that respect, the Clarence Thomas hearings led themselves to drama much better than most court cases because, like so much of politics in the age of cable television, the hearings were political theater. Persuasion in this case has little to do with facts and much more to do with feelings and Confirmation is largely about the way in which the Clarence Thomas hearings played to people’s emotions and preconceived ideas. Specifically, Conformation is about who we believe and why. The politicians of this film, especially the Republicans, are motivated by partisanship. This guides their interrogation and leads them to see things a certain way. But virtually all the male characters in this movie say things that reveal the limitations of their perspectives. Confirmation is especially interesting as an intersectional drama; both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill were African American and the interplay of race and gender created a complex web of reactions. Those intersections come out in the two lead performances. Kerry Washington is terrific as Anita Hill; she struggles to retain her dignity while revisiting a difficult event and coping with the hoopla of the press coverage in which all manner of insinuations, speculations, and outright lies were said about her. Wendell Pierce is also quite good as Clarence Thomas. He faces the charges with bullish determination but what is most revealing are the private moments within the Thomas family and the way he sees the hearings as the persecution of a black man by an all-white senate committee. Confirmation is at its best when it plays to that complex matrix of identity and how it relates to power.
What Doesn’t: There is a tendency in historical filmmaking to bestow events with significance that they may not possess. Historical figures and events can be important and merit dramatization without changing the world or the culture. The Clarence Thomas hearings did represent a change in the way we talk about sexual harassment but this film overstates the impact. The coda that concludes Confirmation proposes that the Clarence Thomas hearings caused a sea change in the treatment of women in the workplace and ushered in a wave of female representation in the federal government. As evidenced by recent headlines from Hollywood and Washington D.C., that impression gives the Clarence Thomas hearings more credit than they are due. And a critical scene in the climax of Confirmation actually makes that point—that the pursuit of truth and justice came up short. There is also a partisan political calculation in the movie; the Democratic politicians come off much more favorably than their Republican counterparts. The movie disingenuous implies that the Democratic politicians were only motivated by the search for truth. Sexual harassment ought to be above partisanship and the filmmakers seem to understand that but they ignore how partisan allegiances shaped the way Democratic senators responded to Anita Hill’s story.
DVD extras: Interviews with the cast.
Bottom Line: Confirmation is a very good dramatization of the Clarence Thomas hearings. It has some shortcomings as an adaptation of history but the filmmakers have done an admirable job paring down a complicated event into a feature-length drama.
Episode: #676 (December 3, 2017)