How Accurate Is 'Confirmation' On HBO? Anita Hill's Accusations Against Clarence Thomas Are Still Divisive
The investigative hearings concerning Anita Hill's accusations of sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, which he adamantly denied, might go down in history as the most defining case of "he said, she said." On April 16, HBO will premiere Confirmation, a film about the 1991 politically charged hearings, but how based in history is HBO's Confirmation? The film will not attempt to prove what actually happened between Hill and Thomas when she worked for him between 1981 and 1983, but it will try to accurately portray the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings that dealt with Thomas' Supreme Court nomination. However, what happened not on the record is difficult to prove, and whether you think Confirmation is accurate or not will possibly depend on who you are.
Some background of the political landscape at the time of current Supreme Court Justice Thomas' nomination is beneficial to know before going into watching Confirmation. As can be seen today with President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, filling a Supreme Court seat can cause political chaos due to the long-term political influence justices have. After the liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, Republican President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas to fill Marshall's seat. Thomas would be the second black justice on the court — after Marshall — but the nomination of the conservative Thomas was reportedly a cause for concern for some Democrats, according to ABC News.
Months after his nomination, when it seemed that Thomas would be confirmed to the Supreme Court, Hill was summoned to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee — and 20 million households through live TV. The law professor, who worked with Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had previously submitted a confidential statement to the committee about an alleged harassment by Thomas a decade prior, and after the story was leaked by reporters, the committee called her to testify. The journalist who broke the Hill story, NPR's Nina Totenberg, noted in an interview about Confirmation that, in 1991, "sexual harassment was a dirty little secret that most women had but they didn't talk about."
Thomas, in his testimony, vehemently denied the accusations lodged against him by Hill, stating, "I deny each and every single allegation against me today that suggested in any way that I had conversations of a sexual nature or about pornographic material with Anita Hill, that I ever attempted to date her, that I ever had any personal sexual interest in her, or that I in any way ever harassed her." He then went on to condemn that these allegations — which he called "sleaze" — were even brought up in his hearing in the first place, calling it a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves."
Since Justice Thomas is on the Supreme Court today, it's no spoiler to say that Hill's allegations did not stop him from being confirmed to the highest court in the United States. The above trailer shows that Confirmation will portray the real-life hearings with then-Sen. Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear) presiding over the testimonies of Hill (Kerry Washington) and Thomas (Wendell Pierce). Confirmation uses quotes from Hill and Thomas' testimonies, including details of Hill's accusations as well as Thomas' vehement denial of those accusations, including his "high-tech lynching" remark.
The below video from PBS NewsHour covers some of the highlights from the actual 33 hours and 22 witnesses who testified during the three days of hearings, and you can expect to see some of these moments in Confirmation.
However, the film is a dramatization of real-life events, and some behind-closed-doors moments featured in Confirmation are more subjective than others. President of HBO Films Len Amato told Politico about concerns of bias in Confirmation that, "It's not a documentary, so yes, some of the words aren't going to be exact words said. Some characters might be composite characters, some time periods might be compressed." Amato added, "This is all within the realm of making any movie, but we don't do it with some kind of agenda, and we always do it with a higher purpose."
Some senators who were part of the confirmation hearings took issue with the film. Sen. Alan Simpson, portrayed in the movie by Peter McRobbie, told Politico, "It's unfair to everyone but Anita Hill, including Joe Biden who did a hell of a good job [during the hearings], the best he could." Sen. John (Jack) Danforth, portrayed by Bill Irwin, issued a statement to Politico saying, "The script gave the impression that politics motivated my defense of Justice Thomas during the ordeal of the hearings. That was not the case. In fact, what led me to stand by him was our close friendship, which at that time had already stretched over more than 15 years."
Director Rick Famuyiwa told Mother Jones he didn't mean to make the senators look bad in the film, saying, "That wasn't the intention. These are people who believed in Clarence and believed in his innocence and believed he was being wrongly accused and railroaded by special interests. In that case, you try to protect your friend and colleague. Things look different to you now then they did then. You look back on it with a lens and you go, 'Wow, maybe that didn't look so great.'"
Regarding ruffled feathers that might arise because of the way some controversial situations were portrayed, Amato said, "When we did come into the situation where people had different points of view in terms of their interpretations, we kind of cross referenced that with all the source research that we did in terms of speaking with various people and cross referenced with our journalistic consultants and came up with what we thought was the most reasonable point of view for a particular scene or sequence."
And star and producer Washington stands by Amato's statements in the below video promoting Confirmation, saying, "It's not about propaganda. It's not about taking sides. It's not about a good guy and a bad guy. It's about human beings trying to really struggle with issues of identity and morality and truth."
There are some artistic liberties the filmmakers admit to taking in the film. As Famuyiwa told Mother Jones about Hill being chased by reporters in a car (which is shown in the trailer), "There was a huge attack on her as she descended into DC. Obviously there are creative licenses that you take as a filmmaker. At the time, there were these paparazzi chases — Princess Diana. We wanted to be representative of the beginning of that hot, 24-hour news feeding frenzy. So, basically, not all scenes are 100 percent accurate, but are rooted in the history of the climate at the time.
Another moment outside of the courtroom featured in Confirmation is that an additional woman, Angela Wright, came forth claiming that Thomas also allegedly sexually harassed her, though she did not testify at his hearing. It is true that another woman made allegations against Thomas, and the movie will depict that, with Jennifer Hudson portraying Wright. Thomas said in his testimony that Wright had reason to attack him because he "terminated her very aggressively." Like Hill, Wright worked with Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but was fired by Thomas, instead of voluntarily leaving as Hill did.
While some parts of Confirmation can be debated, one thing is for sure: We'll probably never know exactly what allegedly happened between Hill and Thomas. Confirmation is trying to be as accurate as it can, but it's still a movie, and creative licenses will be taken.
Image: Frank Masi/HBO