Last Friday, the New York Times invited Kerry Washington and Anita Hill to discuss the new HBO movie “Confirmation,” which is based on highly publicized and widely contested Supreme Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas in 1991. Despite the lengthy hearing process, that also included a polygraph test from Hill, Thomas was voted into the Supreme Court on a 52-48 vote. This divisive hearing captured the country’s attention for weeks, and has already been made into a 2013 documentary entitled “Anita.”
“Confirmation” boasts a terrific cast, with Kerry Washington starring as Anita Hill, Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas, Jennifer Hudson as Angela Wright, Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden, Jeffrey Wright as Charles Ogletree, and Eric Stonestreet as Kenneth Duberstein.
Recently, politically and racially charged events from the 90s are seeing a resurgence in media and entertainment. The O.J. Simpson case is featured in two television events this year, “American Horror Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” and “O.J.: Made in America.” Washington and Hill speculated during the interview about why this comeback is so popular and important.
“I think we’re having a desire, as a culture, to understand ourselves and what gender and race mean in this modern era for us. I think we are trying to understand some of the ideology that’s being spewed these days and some of the policies and conflicts. So we’re going back to recent history that really provoked our thinking around race and sexual violence and sexuality and gender. We’re going to O.J., we’re going to Anita Hill, and we’re asking ourselves, ‘Who are we as a society? Can we look back 25 years to see who we really are supposed to be?’” said Washington.
Anita Hill was one of the first to step forward and state the truth of what was truly going on behind the politics of race and, especially, gender. Behind the scenes and daily lives of politicians and everyday Americans, the taboo topics of sexual harassment and racism lurked just below the surface of conversation and debate. Hill’s decision to speak out helped to trigger a series of changes in the political and social circles. However, Hill did not originally view the trial in that way.
“When I came forward I was giving testimony to the character of the nominee. That’s why I went forward and that’s why sent in my statement and that’s why I testified. It was really about the Supreme Court and the integrity of the Court and the character of the individual who was going to be considered for a lifetime position on the Court. I’m very happy at this point that the conversation about sexual harassment unfolded and really took off as a result of the hearing. That was not what I was thinking at the time. It is interesting because, as you said, people were not talking about sexual harassment, even in private… These conversations just were not happening among family members, even among people who believe in equality and have fought for equality for their whole lives and for their work. I don’t think anybody anticipated that it was going to open up the door for us to have these conversations and begin to address the problem,” said Hill.
And that’s exactly what this HBO film portrays. The trial and movie not only explore themes of political justice and representation, but also questions how society views gender, particularly women. But behind this strong, empowering story, there is also some retrospective regret about the way the trial turned out, and as well as the results of other politically and socially charged events of the ’90s. Hill astutely notes, “Is this the moment where we should have learned the lesson that might have prevented what has happened in the years since?” It seems that we keep repeating the mistakes of the past, and that is it difficult to keep pushing forward towards political, social and racial equality.
Although it might be easy to get swept up in this sense of futility, “Confirmation” doesn’t end with a sigh and a sob. Penned by Susannah Grant, the screenwriter of “Erin Brockovich,” “Confirmation” makes sure to let viewers know that although Hill lost the trial, changes would come and a storm was brewing.
Washington states that “The optics alone of seeing this panel of all white men interrogating these two African Americans really had a profound impact. The job of our Congress is to represent us. That’s what a representational democracy is. We were all confronted with the idea that it was not possible for this very non-inclusive group of people to represent the country they were supposed to be representing… I think it was a real moment where people were inspired to step up and participate.”
These ideas present in “Confirmation” can easily be applied to gender and race politics in the 21st century. While we might not have made extreme strides after such a dramatic and explosive episode, the influence of Hill’s testimony is nonetheless thrilling and thought-provoking to watch. Washington and Hill leave the audience thinking seriously about the current issues of sexual assault and women in politics, and how we can further the conversation and change that we are already starting to build upon.
HBO’s “Confirmation” debuts on Saturday, April 16. Watch the full TimesTalk here.