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Confirmation [Movie Review]

Summary

Confirmation is a 2016 HBO film about the hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas’ (Wendell Pierce) nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Washington, D.C. Thomas seems likely to be confirmed until a former employee, Anita Hill (Kerry Washington), surfaces with allegations of sexual harassment. The movie follows the political, legal, and media machinations of the resulting confirmation hearing.

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Show Notes

I was alive at the time Clarence Thomas had been nominated and his confirmation hearing was taking place. But I was very young and not at all paying attention. I don’t remember much about the situation from that time. I’m sure the adults around me were talking about what was happening. But I don’t recall any personal memories or things I heard in the media that indicated public sentiment. It was just completely outside the realm of my childhood.

As I got older, I became aware of the details or at least developed a better understanding of the situation. And also, by the time I was a teen, I was more aware of Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice. At the time, I was more aware of him than any other justice on the bench due to his statements regarding race and related policies.

I knew the name Anita Hill but didn’t know much about her beyond the overview that she testified to being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. When Confirmation first premiered, I watched it mostly because I was a fan of Kerry Washington. But it wasn’t until I watched a documentary (Anita: Speaking Truth to Power) about Anita Hill’s experience in her words that I truly appreciated how important and historic the allegations and resulting events were.

Earlier this year, during the summer of 2021, I visited Savannah, Georgia, and some of the surrounding areas. Located about 11 miles away from the historic downtown area is the small historically Black community of Pin Point. I was there to visit a local Black history museum and missed the entrance. While making a turn in a small nearby street, I saw a sign at the street’s entrance that indicated it was the birthplace of Clarence Thomas.

It was surprising that he was born and raised in what is a predominantly Black community with a rich history. Given who Clarence Thomas has become and my perspective on him, I was quite intrigued and curious. How did he grow up in such a community and go on to become the person he is today?

It’s something that had been floating in the back of my mind since then. I’m not always successful but I try not to rush to judgment about people or at least to not form opinions based on just one source or tidbit of information. That curiosity motivated me to revisit Confirmation. It doesn’t offer a lot of information on his background or Anita Hill’s for that matter. But I thought it would be a good jumping-off point before reading books about them both.

It’s interesting that when allegations like this become public years after the incident, people ask why it’s coming out now. But it seems like in many of these situations the victim isn’t the one that steps forward and attracts the full onslaught of media attention. They may or may not officially report it, but they’re usually not the ones to go to the media. Typically they don’t go to the press because they’ve tried official channels and nothing came of it or they don’t want to deal with retaliation or public backlash.

In this case, Hill didn’t volunteer to attempt to derail Thomas’ confirmation hearings by testifying. Investigators in Washington, D.C. found out about her allegations and contacted her for comment. The question I had was if Hill didn’t initiate contact with the investigators, how did they find out about her? It’s something that is kind of glossed over but stuck out to me. Anita Hill didn’t set this in motion so who did?

Where did the investigator first hear about this and was it shared by someone who knew Hill or Thomas? How did they know specifically to reach out to Anita Hill? Because at least initially, she had no interest in coming forward. Hill had an idea of the onslaught of media attention and public scrutiny that she might face and didn’t want to be involved. If she’s not the one that came forward, who knew about this that went to the investigators or offered this information when they were contacted? And how did they know?

This stayed with me throughout Confirmation because it shut down a lot of the assumptions that would be made later. First, it showed that Hill wasn’t on the prowl seeking attention or who knows what by stepping forward. At least one other person had heard about Thomas’ alleged inappropriate comments to Hill. With little to gain from testifying at the confirmation hearing and nothing to gain before, what would be the point of making up such a story and then doubling down on it?

Knowledge of the situation had been floating around and at least a few people knew about it. Though to be fair, they might have just thought they were baseless rumors. But consider Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein where when the story explodes that’s when people start saying that the rumors had been open secrets in the industry for many years.

In entertainment, there are industry secrets but I guess they’re also present in Washington, D.C. These allegations come out and everyone is like yeah I heard about that years ago. Unlike allegations of rape or sexual assault, sexual harassment is more of a professionally inappropriate rather than a criminal offense. Sexual harassment that consists of inappropriate comments that aren’t threatening would be handled by a company or professional governing body rather than law enforcement. If this is something happening to someone else and they’re not particularly interested in filing an official complaint or taking legal action, how much can you do as a bystander?

Testimony from these third-party witnesses can offer context and background to the surrounding elements of what took place. The reality is that it seems like the alleged comments were made when Hill and Thomas were most likely the only people in the room or within earshot. It would be his word against hers so if she makes an allegation and he denies it fine.

As a third party, you can be a character witness or describe the person’s demeanor and body language after the fact. You can dispute when something is alleged to have occurred if you were with that person somewhere else at the time. But as a third party who was not present or party to these conversations, how are you in a position to speak to what did or did not occur?

I could understand someone saying they know and have interacted with Thomas but didn’t experience what Hill alleged. It’s fine to say the person described by Hill is not the person they know and they don’t recognize this crass version of Thomas. You can also state that you don’t know what to make of the situation and don’t have a comment one way or another. All of these are perfectly valid to say and would be the case for most people in these circles.

What I don’t understand is when individuals come out and state there is absolutely no way the accused did what is alleged. You might have interactions with a person and might even work or live with them. But unless you spend every minute of every day with this person, how could you say, beyond a shadow of a doubt what this person is or is not capable of doing?

Listen, I dig true crime and I know there are legit serial killers out here that were pillars of their community. He might be a faithful husband and loving father who mentors kids on the little league team. But his car is frequently spotted on the strip and he’s got like seven people buried in his backyard. I don’t put anything past anybody.

There are family members and friends that I’ve known my entire life. With whom I’ve had nothing but positive experiences and for whom I have the utmost respect. Based on everything that we’ve gone through and my experience with them, I could reasonably respond to an allegation that it doesn’t sound like the person that I know. But I don’t spend every minute of every day with them. And as a family member, their interactions with me might be different from how they interact with co-workers or people in whom they have some sexual interest.

Excluding my mother, and maybe not even her because I don’t know what she did in her youth. I’m not willing to vouch for anyone else beyond we were together at Place A at such and such time so I know they couldn’t have been at Place B. But to swear as to what someone did or didn’t say when I wasn’t in the room? I’m not willing to go that far.

Or more simply, if a person doesn’t know the details of the situation they should just say that. It’s not hard to say I don’t feel like I’m in the position to comment at this point. Instead of rushing to judgment or pushing others to rush to judgment just wait for the facts to come out and then share your opinion. But to say I don’t know what happened but I’m going to tell you what did or didn’t occur? That’s too much.

To some degree, I think people might shy away from responding in a manner that even allows for the possibility that the person they know has done something wrong. If not worded correctly, it can sound like a condemnation of that person. But it’s a reasonably logical response. Yet, in these instances, there seems to be pressure to make an all-or-nothing statement.

And when you add this insane media frenzy it just increases the pressure. The media isn’t always looking for the truth. With these hot scoop stories, journalists aren’t always thorough in their research and investigation. Sometimes that expediency, the push for a quick and prompt answer right now is preferred over the more logical and reasonable action of waiting until the necessary information has been gathered. Put on the spot people might feel compelled to state a concrete opinion one way or the other.

With that in mind, I appreciated Confirmation’s approach to the incident where we see the hearing from both sides. Right off the bat, we see how the various players were pulled into the story. And most interestingly, an imagining of how the legal and political strategies developed on the two sides. I love thrillers but this one was a bit different because it’s largely mental and public relations. In many of the thrillers that I watch someone’s life is in danger but here professional lives and reputations are at stake.

In recent situations like this, the power balance has been incredibly one-sided. But here on the one side, you have a would-be Supreme Court Justice backed by the White House and the Republican party. On Hill’s side of the table, there might be less political power but highly capable legal minds. Hill was then and still is an attorney and law professor in her own right and capable of aiding in the strategy surrounding her testimony.

On the one hand, you have the full might of the Republican power structure which is a huge advantage. But I felt like Hill at least had a fighting chance on the other side. Her position was also strengthened by the various female politicians who stepped into the fray. Given that she didn’t have the democrat machine fully on her side, she was still a bit outmatched. But given the circumstances, she still made out ok. Had Hill been an intern or regular run-of-the-mill woman making this allegation things could have gone a lot worse than they did.

It was ironic that Thomas and other members of the Republican Party typically try to end conversations about racial issues by referring to people “playing the race card”. Yet here it is that at the first sign of trouble, they pull out the stops and bus in Black women from Georgia to improve the optics around Thomas. They then try to push this narrative of the confirmation hearing being a modern-day lynching.

Under circumstances where we’re discussing race-based inequality in America, they dismiss the conversations as unnecessary and manipulative. But yet here you have a Black woman speaking out against a Black man who allegedly sexually harassed her and suddenly race is on the table. They are both Black people. But as a Black man, he is recognized as being Black while this Black woman is maybe recognized as being a woman but certainly not Black.

We see the machinations behind how the committee hearing was strategized from the two sides and them angling to control the narrative. He’s trying to secure his nomination and she’s trying to share her experience in her words. But as someone watching a dramatization after the fact, I was curious to know what people thought watching this live as it was happening. Not politicians or political pundits but everyday people.

I understood Anita Hill being present to give her testimony, read her affidavit, and then answer questions. But what I did not understand was after she explained the details of what happened, why did they need to have her go over the specific details of what he said. You might need context so asking her to describe what he said, his tone, and body language is understandable. But to ask questions about what was the most embarrassing statement or what made you most uncomfortable. Then when the question is asked and answered, you keep reiterating it?

She’s there to give testimony and part of that requires you to ask questions. Fine, fair enough. But past a certain point, it comes across as a lack of sensitivity. How are these details relevant or necessary in discussing the topic at hand? Ask her has it taken place and what occurred. Ok then let’s move on and get to his side of the story. But instead, it begins to feel like badgering.

I reviewed the Tina documentary early this year and it touched on her doing media and interviews where people would just go overboard with the questions. They would get so wrapped up in getting the scoop while completely losing sight of the fact that this is someone’s life that they’re talking about. It’s like ignoring that person’s humanity and just completely focusing on getting the headlines about their experience.

The setting is a confirmation hearing before a Senate committee but the tone feels the same. What exactly would be the point of pushing for these details? Not even the facts of what happened but asking about the moments when she felt the worst. If she’s already explained the facts of what happened why keep pushing for her opinion if it’s potentially a sensitive area?

There’s one point where they ask questions about Thomas’ comments regarding pornography. Hill alleged that he had made inappropriate comments about his genitals and things that he’d seen in pornographic movies. Why do you need to know the details of what exactly he said he saw in these movies?

I can understand the media grasping for these sensational details because they want salacious headlines and stories. The more details the better as it will likely attract eyeballs and attention. But this is the senate, who exactly needs this information?

Unfortunately, with many of these types of cases, the women making the accusations are vilified. It’s perfectly fine to investigate or ask the public to hold off on passing judgment until after the investigation and case have played out. But for whatever reason, the accuser’s character is completely assassinated and every negative detail from their background is dredged up.

Consider that even in murder cases, things of that nature are not called into question unless it’s pertinent to the case at hand. Excluding cases of self-defense, people rarely try to argue how the murder victim might have brought death upon themselves. Yet, in cases where there is a sexual element such as rape or sexual harassment, the victim’s sexual past and habits are examined and inferences are made about them as a person. For whatever reason victims of sexual and sex-related crimes shoulder a lot of the blame for what they allege happened to them.

As time passes, more of the public is gaining a better understanding of sexual crimes and inappropriate behaviors. There is still a lot of progress to be made. But it seems like in the past most people were automatically willing to give men the benefit of the doubt. In recent years as more of these situations are made public and discussed in the open, attitudes are changing. This is positive but at the same time, there’s still so much work that needs to be done.

Depending on who the accused person is within society, the accuser might be condemned and vilified for even so much as stepping forward to give their side. In this case, here it is that you have a Black woman speaking out about the harassment that she allegedly suffered at the hands of a Black man. And he takes the opportunity to turn the situation around by referring to it as a new age lynching. His words play into the idea that all of the Blacks are men and all of the women are White. Thomas’ testimony dismisses Hill’s personhood by making her a non-factor in the situation.

Hill being dismissed in this manner is a perfect example of intersectional racism. As a Black man from a small town in Georgia, I’m sure that Clarence Thomas has faced discrimination in his life. I’m not disputing that at all. But Thomas is regarded as a Black man facing discrimination during the confirmation hearing because of his race. Meanwhile, you have this Black woman who very likely has also had to deal with racism and is here alleging sexism but Thomas is allowed to easily dismiss and brush aside her claims of discrimination.

Someone mentions that had Anita Hill been a White woman making these accusations, the proceedings would have most likely gone very differently. But as occurs when crimes are committed against Black women, whether the perpetrator is a White or Black man, justice is often not served. There’s a silencing of Black women.

Consider when police violence and harassment of Black people are being discussed. Much of the focus is placed on the experiences of Black men while less attention is paid to the experiences of Black women. This shouldn’t be an argument of who has it worse or better but rather that both genders of Black people are experiencing unfair treatment during contact with the police.

People speak about the fears they have raising Black sons in America’s racially hostile environment. That is a real and completely valid fear. Yet, we don’t often hear people share similar fears about raising Black daughters in the same environment. We speak about the various forms of discrimination and institutional racism aimed at creating obstacles in the lives of Black males. But then seemingly disregard those obstacles, some similar and others different, also exist in the lives of Black females.

It goes back to the point that I made about the idea that all of the Blacks are men and all the women are White. In these situations, there’s an expectation for Black women to just be quiet. And that expectation comes from all corners. Black women will face racism and sexism from across racial and gender lines.

And as we see here, there is a whole other layer of complexity when the alleged harm being done to a Black woman is at the hands of a Black man.

There are attempts to silence Black women attempting to speak out against the injustice suffered due to race and/or gender. Hill’s case is a solid example of intersectional racism. She suffered sexual harassment which is a form of sexist discrimination because she’s a woman and Thomas was a man in a position of authority. And then within the congressional hearing, she also suffered discrimination specifically because she was a Black woman.

As Confirmation progresses it’s revealed that Hill wasn’t the only person to have made allegations against Thomas. Often in these incidents, it takes some time for the first alleged victim to come forward. But after they come forward it’s found that these kinds of things weren’t a single instance of bad behavior. Instead, when the investigation gets underway, other similar situations come to the fore as more accusers step forward.

I don’t know if it’s a matter of the person getting away with it once or it’s just a pattern of behavior that they’ve come to view as acceptable. It would seem that at the very least, they rationalize their actions to themselves. And with that, they take the risk of repeating their behavior with multiple individuals.

Often the person hasn’t just raped, assaulted, or been sexually inappropriate with one person but there will be multiple incidents or a pattern of behavior. This is something that they do over and over again, maybe not to the same degree and the frequency might vary. But it’s something that occurs on more than one occasion.

There’s a contrast of how these things are handled in the public now versus back then. That’s not to say that everything’s perfect now or that we’ve made as much progress as should have been made. But consider that back then many people thought this kind of behavior was acceptable in the workplace and it was something that women just had to tolerate.

It’s like the saying that the first person over the hill gets the arrows. In this case, Anita Hill was like the first person to come forward and faced harsh questioning and the brunt of the criticism. Confirmation does a good job at the end of showing the different changes that Hill’s testimony motivated and the progress to which it contributed.

Most touching was women coming forward and speaking out about sexual harassment. They did this both in terms of sharing their experiences, specifically with Anita Hill and also in general. Not to mention, more women deciding to get involved in these government committees and more involved in politics overall.

Testifying required some sacrifice from Hill though her testimony didn’t result in Thomas not having his nomination approved. Hill would likely have preferred to live a life of anonymity but that was no longer possible once she stepped forward. Sometimes people make history in ways that they don’t exactly care or want to but are just unfortunate to have to go through a negative experience publicly.

That’s not to say that Hill should have been sacrificed for anyone else’s benefit. But rather that while it might not have seemed like it, her testimony at the Senate hearings had an impact. In the long run, her sacrifice and contributions have proved to be beneficial for many other women, and maybe men too.

With regards to the film Confirmation itself, I thought it was ok during my first viewing at the time of its release. But watching it the second time around I realized that just about everyone turned in a good performance. And Confirmation does a pretty good job of not falling back on the simple trope of a supervillain on one side and an angel on the other. I say this as someone who doesn’t know how the hearings or commentary might have come across in the media at the time.

Part of it was that everyone held their own. Wendell Pierce and Kerry Washington both did well portraying their characters. And because there were two good actors on both sides and the filmmaker didn’t try to force an opinion you end up with a film that was all the better for it. Those decisions helped make it a better movie.

HBO tends to make very good quality movies and the acting was great here. Everything came together to make a good film, which I didn’t appreciate at the time. But on second viewing, I realized that it was quite good and I highly recommend checking it out.

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