Before being sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice in 1991, Clarence Thomas first had to confront the truth. Anita Hill, then a professor at the University of Oklahoma, had accused Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked for him at the Department of Education and U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. For those who lived through Hill’s and Thomas’ testimonies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and even more so for those who only know the general story, HBO’s Confirmation turned out to be eye-opening.
With Kerry Washington in the role of Hill and Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas, the movie (directed by Rick Famuyiwa) focused on the nuance of an event for which the details—and its significant influence on sexual harassment laws in the workplace—were overshadowed by the spectacle. After watching on April 16 and taking it all in, Kara Brown and I talked about Thomas’ shameful history and all the players involved in a hearing that pit one powerful voice against a bunch of corrupt characters.
Clover: First off, I had to navigate past a Beyoncé preview of Lemonade on HBO Go to get to the movie, which made this an even more emotional night. Then watching it was of course upsetting. I was only eight when the hearings first happened, so I wasn’t one of the women who experienced it live. And my family didn’t talk about it like Kerry Washington said hers did. I read about Anita Hill years later. Do you remember hearing about it when you were younger?
Kara: I definitely don’t. I was about three years old when all this happened and I can’t remember it coming up later with my family. However, about two years ago I spent the day with Anita Hill when I was working on the press for her documentary. Obviously, by that time I was much more familiar with her story. Still, the most interesting thing for me was watching women coming up and thanking her and hugging her and expressing all this gratitude for what she had done. That—coupled with my grandmother’s reaction when I told her I’d be spending the day with Anita Hill—was what really opened my eyes to her legacy.
Clover: Yeah, it’s crazy how much influence she had and we don’t even recognize it, so the movie helped in that way. Like, the ending shows how sexual harassment laws were introduced in workplaces. All those poorly shot videos people have to watch at job orientations have a purpose. Since you spent the day with her, was she mostly like how Kerry portrayed her? To me, it felt like Kerry playing a meeker version of Olivia Pope (I can never not see Liv when I see her).
Kara: Oh my gosh, you’re so right about the Olivia Pope overtones! The fact that she’s a lawyer, in Washington D.C., wearing those power suits… It is definitely hard to un-see. I do think Kerry Washington did a great job. I remember watching Hill do all those interviews and I was so struck by how methodically she broke down the issues and described her experience—I’m sure that’s the lawyer in her. Anita Hill is certainly not a meek woman, but she is quiet yet very firm and clear about what’s being said. In that regard, I think Kerry Washington nailed it. At the same time, I never felt like I wasn’t watching Kerry Washington.
What did you think of Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas? In the lead-up to the release, I got multiple pitches from people wanting to explain “his” side of things and I may or may not have responded to one of them, “Fuck Clarence Thomas,” because my god he’s a terrible person in so many ways.
Clover: Haha. True, meek is the wrong word. Quietly firm is good. I love Wendell Pierce so much it was the hard watching this. ’Cause my hate for Clarence Thomas just zoomed up the further it went along. I kinda wish it was an actor I already disliked, like a Terrence Howard, playing him. But there was a moment where Wendell really sold it and it was when he took the stand (or whatever legal people call it) and started invoking all the race talk. Like, “high tech lynching” by “uppity blacks.” It’s hard to believe this dude really said those things. Wendell made me feel truly disgusted with him. And Jeffrey Wright. My fav line that I noted: “He only acknowledged race because it was about him.”
Kara: I SCREAMED AT MY SCREEN DURING THAT PART. It was so incredibly transparent that I actually can’t believe that worked. The other race “issue” that I found interesting was the suggestion that if Anita Hill had been white, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas would almost certainly not be a thing. YES YES YES to that Jeffrey Wright line. It reminded me of some of the discussions that have popped up about how black women have always been on the forefront of supporting black men, particularly when it comes to thinks like police violence, but that support is often not reciprocated. Watching him tear down this black woman by invoking ridiculous race metaphors was beyond infuriating.
Clover: Oh yeah, these were good tweets about that:
All those shots of his wife watching the hearing silently and just reacting were great.
Kara: Every time I think of his wife I remember this: