“Confirmation”—HBO’s latest dramatization of a true-life political story featuring actors you know playing political figures you also know—seeks to reclaim the legacy of law professor Anita Hill, whose testimony at the Senate confirmation hearings resulted in a smear campaign against her, impugning her motives and tarnishing her reputation. In contrast to the right-wing caricature of Hill as delusional, disgruntled, opportunistic, politically motivated, and even sex-crazed, in “Confirmation” she is portrayed as a reluctant conscript into the battle against sexual harassment, the Cincinnatus of the culture wars.
Given the political climate of the ‘80s and ‘90s, who could blame a woman for being reluctant to speak out publicly against a boss who would repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances, casually referencing pornography in the office and even claiming to find a pubic hair on his Coke? Understanding of workplace sexual harassment was still in the dark ages, and, as Hill well knew, any woman who dared to speak out could expect to have her reputation dragged through the mud. Hill enjoyed the distinct displeasure of relaying her graphic sexual harassment to a panel composed entirely of old white men who subsequently proceeded to contest her story and smear her as a liar. Thomas himself responded by calling her testimony a “high-tech lynching.”
It is undeniably good that “Confirmation,” following the lead of the 2013 documentary “Anita,” has sought to rescue Hill from the dustbin of history. Unfortunately, in doing so, they have rendered her narrowly, a bland reluctant-crusader role that even Washington’s steely performance can’t save. Hill’s testimony before the committee is emotional and, at times, stomach-churning, and Washington movingly delivers it as if she is the one on trial. But for much of the rest of the movie, she is reduced to solemnly staring out windows and looking sick when someone says something awful about her on TV. For a movie that wants to reclaim Hill as a civil rights pioneer, it offers a pretty shallow, airbrushed view of Hill herself.
Thomas, played by Wendell Pierce, fares even worse. Thomas is a man with an incredibly complex history and character, and while it would be impossible to capture all of that in a movie like this, “Confirmation” captures none of it. Director Rick Famuyiwa and writer Susannah Grant may have been unwilling (or unable) to take sides on Thomas, but they have effectively reduced him to a cypher. In an interesting moment, Charles Ogletree (Jeffrey Wright) remarks, “I’ve got students more qualified than Thomas.” This is a point many made at the time, including Cornel West, who wrote, “The very fact that no black leader could utter publicly that a black appointee for the Supreme Court was unqualified shows how captive they are to white racist stereotypes about black intellectual talent.” But in “Confirmation,” this raging debate is reduced to a single throwaway line.
“Confirmation” has a certain camp appeal, as these true-life political films often do. It’s always fun to watch recognizable actors put on a bit of political drag, and here we get to see Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden, Dylan Baker as Orrin Hatch, and Treat Williams as Ted Kennedy, among others. I also enjoy the moments when they insert actors into archival footage, and so we can enjoy the visual of Supreme Court nominee Bunk Moreland standing behind George H.W. Bush on the White House lawn. But “Confirmation” downplays the camp in favor of earnestness. Politics—and particularly political scandals—tend to work best when treated as farce, but Famujiwa and Grant mostly play it straight, producing a dramatically lead-footed melodrama that effectively encases this historical episode in amber.
It’s interesting to compare “Confirmation” to another recent ‘90s true-life period piece that touches on issues of race and gender, the FX miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” The latter indulged in camp silliness and oddball trivia, recapturing the surreal, stranger-than-fiction feel of the whole affair, while also teasing out serious issues and drawing some multi-dimensional characters out of some real personalities (Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, and Johnnie Cochran) who had long since lapsed into pop caricature. By placing us back in the whirlwind weirdness of the trial and its swirl of racial prejudice, celebrity fetish, and tabloid fixation on salacious minutiae, “O.J.” paradoxically managed to feel vitally timely. “Confirmation” manages exactly one moment that reminded me of the high-wire balancing act of “O.J.”: a scene in which Thomas sings “Onward Christian Soldiers” with John Danforth in an office bathroom moments before delivering his testimony on the floor of the Senate. The rest is strictly by the numbers, and, considering that the whole Anita Hill scandal was essentially a funhouse-mirror reflection of the nation’s ongoing debates about race, gender, and sex, it feels like a missed opportunity.
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