In 'Confirmation,' A Scathing Take On Our Troubles Discussing Race And Gender

Apr 16, 2016
Originally published on April 16, 2016 5:27 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend a few minutes talking about one of history's most intense Supreme Court nomination panels on HBO tonight. A new film called "Confirmation" debuts. It's a fictional take on the sexual harassment allegations raised by University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill that threw then - the Senate confirmation hearings of then Judge Clarence Thomas into an uproar. NPR TV critic, Eric Deggans, has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONFIRMATION")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I am very pleased to announce that I will nominate Judge Clarence Thomas...

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: HBO's Confirmation isn't a note-for-note retelling of the political brawl that brought Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Instead, the film is a powerful look at how badly Congress and the world handled sexual harassment allegations almost 25 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONFIRMATION")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Judge Clarence Thomas appears headed for confirmation to the Supreme Court...

DEGGANS: "Confirmation" presents Thomas's nomination as a nearly done deal until it isn't. Wendell Pierce plays a wounded Thomas, telling his wife what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONFIRMATION")

WENDELL PIERCE: (As Clarence Thomas) A former employee - someone I hired, mentored told the FBI that I was inappropriate with her, that I harassed her sexually.

ALISON WRIGHT: (As Virginia Thomas) Then why is she saying this?

PIERCE: (As Clarence Thomas) I don't know. How can I answer that? Someone lies about me - how am I supposed to know why?

A. WRIGHT: (As Virginia Thomas) Don't yell.

DEGGANS: Pierce, an alum of "The Wire" on HBO is sympathetic, likeable and stately, which helps the film look balanced. "Scandal" star Kerry Washington is Anita Hill. A straight-laced law professor, who resists talking about the allegations, even to an investigator from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONFIRMATION")

KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Anita Hill) If I were advising someone who were a victim of his unwanted advances, I don't think I would suggest that she come forward. When someone comes forward, the victim tends to become the villain.

DEGGANS: Those words are pretty prescient. Thomas was a conservative nominee from a Republican president, but HBO's movie shows Democratic Committee Chair and then Sen. Joe Biden, still trying to avoid the issue. Greg Kinnear does spot-on work as Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONFIRMATION")

GREG KINNEAR: (As Joe Biden) Ten years ago, Carolyn, he's been approved for three federal jobs in that time.

ZOE LISTER-JONES: (As Carolyn Hart) I know that.

KINNEAR: (As Joe Biden) Why didn't she bring it up before?

LISTER-JONES: (As Carolyn Hart) We called her - she didn't want to talk about it and she really doesn't want this getting out.

KINNEAR: (As Joe Biden) And what if she's lying? You understand that? Then you got me bringing up a bunch of bogus dirt on a federal judge's past, and I'm the bad guy in all of this.

DEGGANS: Washington plays Hill as smart and determined, quite a bit like her other role as "Scandal's" Olivia Pope. Hill and Thomas don't have much of a public image, so the actors mostly evoke their attitudes as two principled, well-educated black professionals at odds in the world's highest profile sexual harassment case. NPR even plays a role. An actress imitates correspondent Nina Totenberg's voice in this scene where Hill gets a phone call asking about the allegations.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONFIRMATION")

WASHINGTON: (As Anita Hill) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Nina Totenberg) Professor Hill, this is Nina Totenberg from National Public Radio...

DEGGANS: Then we hear some of the 1991 NPR story where Totenberg breaks the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONFIRMATION")

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: (As herself) Thomas, after a brief work discussion, would, quote, "turn conversation to discussions about his sexual interests."

DEGGANS: "Confirmation" soars when it shows how badly a group of middle-aged white male senators fumbled the race and gender issues raised by Hill's allegations. GOP senators like John Danforth blamed the accuser, attacking Hill with salacious rumors. Democratic senators like Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy were so uncomfortable, they didn't help her much. And then Clarence Thomas invoked a phrase that would go down in history.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONFIRMATION")

PIERCE: (As Clarence Thomas) This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it's a high-tech lynching.

DEGGANS: By making race an issue, Thomas made it possible for the Democratic senators to confront him. Anita Hill's attorney Charles Ogletree, played by Jeffrey Wright, breaks down the politics for her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONFIRMATION")

WASHINGTON: (As Anita Hill) None of what he said has any relevance.

JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As Charles Ogletree) But this is not a judicial proceeding. This is political theater. He only acknowledged race because it was about him.

WASHINGTON: (As Anita Hill) But that's not right.

J. WRIGHT: (As Charles Ogletree) I'm not saying it is right.

WASHINGTON: That's not the issue. The issue is...

J. WRIGHT: (As Charles Ogletree) But it was effective...

WASHINGTON: (As Anita Hill) ...Sexual harassment.

J. WRIGHT: (As Charles Ogletree) Now, you think any of those white boys on that committee are prepared to challenge him now?

DEGGANS: In real life, some GOP officials portrayed in the film have already objected, saying the movie distorts events to demonize them. But what "Confirmation" gets right is how we are all harmed by our inability to talk openly and fairly about race and gender, especially when the stakes reach as high as the Supreme Court. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.