"Confirmation:" HBO Tackles Anita Hill's Story

HBO Films 'Confirmation' red carpet screening at the 40th Annual Atlanta Film Festival at Rialto Center for the Arts on April 3, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. Getty Images

The HBO film Confirmation tells the story of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill for a new generation. The film starring Kerry Washington as Anita Hill and Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas, and directed by Rick Famuyima (Dope) with a screenplay from Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), profiles the heady days surrounding Thomas’ supreme court nomination, allegations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill and other women, and Thomas’ subsequent confirmation to the highest court in the land. But how does the film portray this watershed moment in American history?

Turning Back Time

Although I watched Confirmation with a group of 30-something and 40-something year old women in my own living room, during the film I could not help but to be transported back in time to 1991. I remember Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall stepping down and there being a new vacancy on the court. I remember the then president George H.W. Bush appointing Clarence Thomas, another Black man, though one with different politics, to the bench. I remember Anita Hill’s accusations and I remember the adults around me lamenting that fact and the timing of how she came forward. And I remember the relief that so many in my community felt when Thomas was finally appointed to the Supreme Court, while Anita Hill was left to retreat from the spotlight. I remember Anita Hill being referred to as a sellout, a race traitor, and a gold digger. 

It was not until years later as a college student when I realized that there was a much different narrative around the Hill-Thomas hearings out in the world. I learned that while Clarence Thomas was quick to mobilize his blackness during the hearing—which he called a “hi-tech lynching”—he was also quick to disparage African Americans and seemed disinterested, at best, and virulently opposed to any notion of racial solidarity during his long years as a Supreme Court justice, at worst. I learned that many people not only considered Anita Hill brave but also a hero. I learned that she was not a paid informant trotted to take down a hardworking black man, but a respected legal scholar who was sought out by the government and not the other way around. I learned about the years of tormenting sexual harassment that Hill endured while working with Thomas. I learned that Thomas was notorious for singling out female coworkers and inundating them with lewd conversation and unwanted advances. I learned, at times from personal experience, that sexual harassment was real, terrible, and all too common.


But for a new generation, one who may not have a personal memory or connection to the scandal, the hearings held in1991 were not only a long time ago but before their time. For those who have come of age in a time since the term “sexual harassment” was commonplace, peeling back the layers of time to look back at how the issue was engaged in the national spotlight can be a revealing exercise.

Confirmation plays on the 1990s nostalgia that is so pervasive today. The costuming, from Hill’s square-shouldered power suits and Thomas’ oversized glasses, to the cars and even the cans of Coke prominently displayed screamed 1991. However, the film also took pains to bring viewers back to the political climate of the early 90s, one that was embedded in the culture wars and a time in which sexual harassment was a new buzzword.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that it refuses to take a side. Kerry Washington’s Anita Hill is poised, dignified, weary, and wary. She is reluctant to come forward but believes she is honor bound to tell her truth about Clarence Thomas. On the other hand, Wendell Pierce plays a Clarence Thomas brimming with righteous indignation. He never wavers from his claims of innocence. It is ultimately left up to the viewer to figure out what they believe.

To that end, there were no flashbacks that depicted “what really happened” between Thomas and Hill. Director Famuyiwa was much more interested in what happened in the aftermath of the accusations: “How the parties reacted to that became more interesting to me than trying to re-create what I think happened. Why we called it Confirmation, as opposed to any other title, was because once that process starts, and once the institutional power behind that process starts, it’s hard to derail it. Truth didn’t necessarily become what was important. What became important was tradition. What became important was protocol. What became important was this relationship between the senators and the White House. And not necessarily even the two people involved.”

Excavating Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is unfortunately as old as time. As long as women have been moving through the public sphere, whether as workers or even as pedestrians, sexual harassment has been ubiquitous.

The federal courts did not recognize sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination until the 1970s, because the problem originally was misperceived as isolated incidents of flirtation in the workplace. Women’s words against their employers were rarely believed. However, the accusations raised against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearing certainly raised the profile on the issue.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), ironically, a division that Clarence Thomas headed up, has come up with the guidelines for identifying sexual harassment, as we know it. Indeed, the EEOC’s language has also formed the basis for most state laws prohibiting sexual harassment. The guidelines state define sexual harassment as the following.

“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:
submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment,
submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or
such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's, work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”

Sexual harassment can happen to men and women, whether they are trans, cis, or gender non-binary and non-conforming. Women of varying gender expressions, however, have long been targets of sexual harassment because of their general vulnerability in the workplace.

Erasing Important Figures

Confirmation is a television movie and, therefore, condensed an important time period into a few key moments. And, because of that, some major, important details were left out. For example, while Anita Hill is portrayed for much of the film as sort of a lone voice speaking out against Thomas when, in reality, she had vocal female supporters, such as legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw. For example, on November 17, 1991, 1,600 Black women came together and spent $50,000 to purchase a full page in the New York Times using the name “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves.” These women indicted the blatant sexism of the hearings and the unfair treatment of Anita Hill. Still, these voices did not make it to the film.

Melissa Harris-Perry calls out the erasure of Black feminist voices in the film, arguing that, “by elevating Hill as a solitary voice, Confirmation misses an opportunity to remember the black feminists crucial to this watershed moment. In this, Confirmation commits a surprising act of silencing against individual and collective black feminists. Confirmation forgets the contributions of Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the black feminist lawyer on Hill's legal team, focusing instead on Professor Charles Ogletree, who arrives triumphant and courageous, declaring that despite the risk it poses to his tenure prospects at Harvard, he is committed to ensuring Hill is prepared to tackle this daunting public undertaking. No doubt, Ogletree is a first rate legal mind, but highlighting him makes the absence of Crenshaw more remarkable.

Final Verdict

While Confirmation adds a needed chapter to the Hill-Thomas scandal for a new generation, it is far from a complete story. However, taken together with documentaries and articles about the subject, Confirmation includes another dimension to a pivotal part of recent American history.