Confirmation: At the Crossroads of Gender, Politics, and Race

Anita Hill’s publicly broadcasted testimony in 1991 against U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, has become one of the first well-known cases of sexual harassment. As Thomas waited for confirmation into the Court by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hill stepped forward to recount the instances of sexual harassment she endured working under Justice Thomas’ supervision, including inappropriate discussions of pornography and sexual acts.[1] The 2016 political thriller film, Confirmation, dramatizes the Senate’s induction of Judge Thomas.[2] The HBO movie effectively captures the historical moment with convincing character interpretations by the lead roles, yet it overlooks the case’s racial facets that layer the gender and political biases culminated in Judge Thomas’ ultimate confirmation.

Confirmation exhibits forceful leads that emulate Hill and Thomas’ strong-willed characters. Casting leads, executive producer Kerry Washington as Anita Hill and Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas, both performed phenomenally, closely mimicking their characters’ verbal and body languages in the original hearings. Washington successfully balances both Hill’s pride and fear of coming forward and draws on Hill’s elocution and diction in the actual testimony tapes to aptly recount the case. On account of her acting prowess, Washington depicts Hill’s societal polarization. In like fashion, Pierce maintains Judge Thomas’ character by his staunch stance in the trial although overdramatizing Thomas’ demeanor during important moments, i.e. his famous “high-tech lynching” speech.[3] Accounting to Thomas and Hill’s unwavering beliefs in their own accounts, the two actors spawn an electric, highly-polarizing account of the trial. Markedly, Washington had ample insight into Hill’s character via intensive research and one-on-one interviews with Hill; Thomas, on the other hand, declined to meet with the cast, leaving more interpretative room for Pierce in comparison to Washington.[4]

As compared to the original tapes, HBO’s recount of the hearings successfully echoes the fervent tensions in the 1991 courtroom and maintains an exact record of the court proceedings. However the demands of drama distinguish this political thriller from documentary. Improvised scenes between Thomas and his wife, heated corridor discussions between senators, and even Hills’ melodramatic get-away from the media all seem unlikely. Hollywood’s desire for a quickly unfolding plot forced the film’s deviations from reality. Drawn out conversations and elongated character and political developments would prove impossible to fully resolve in 110 minutes. More importantly, the audience should carefully consider the shifts between drama and history to analyze biases and intent. Confirmation does not explicitly reveal bias though it endorses Hill’s virtue in the controversy. In one scene, for instance, then Chairman Joe Biden reveals his trust in Hill’s story to another senator yet politically continues to support Thomas. The viewer must thence ask how these subjective moments aim to alter perception of the true-to-history accounts. In my understanding, the film suggests that fault in proceedings lay not with Judge Thomas but with the Senate Judiciary Committee, and more specifically, Biden who seemed more swayed by political pressures than his moral judgement.

Nonetheless, my main point of critique rests with how the film divides its attention among three focal topics: political power, gender bias, and race. Confirmation dexterously portrays the Senate Judiciary Committee’s political influence and politicized morals as they continuously disregard their intrinsic judgement of Thomas and undermine Hill’s own testimony.[5] Through the development of the Committee characters, the film visually portrays the lack of gender and racial diversity in the Senate. Thus, the movie reveals how a homogenous background engenders a singularity of opinion and prejudice. Following the trial, Hill noted, “I had a gender and he had a race” and accused the Senate of male privilege, stating, “Who do you [the Senate] believe? You believe the guy who is a guy like you.” [6] In its portrayal of the Committee’s conduct, the film concurs with Hill’s commentary. For example, the film exposes how Senate dismissed three African-American women who also stepped forward to testify against Judge Thomas and how the congressmen invariably aimed to cripple Hill’s reputation amongst the public.[7] The he-said, she-said nature of the case, as presented in Confirmation, discloses the obvious faults in American politics, ones driven by bias and political motives. Even today, we see similar instances of prejudice wherein gender and race collide. America elected its first African American president in 2008; yet, the Oval Office remains out of reach for women.

While clearly speaking to America’s prevalent gender discrimination, the film only touches upon the racial component of the Hill-Thomas controversy. As Hill highlights her experiences of harassment with the “Long Dong Silver” story, Thomas turns Hill’s accusations against him to one of race when he delineates the Committee’s character questioning as a “high-tech lynching.”[8] Thomas’ racialization of the case tied the proverbial hands of the Committee, which hoped to avoid public criticism owing to America’s racial sensitivity, and thereby forced the senators to cease investigation of Thomas’ character. Future American trials would mimic Thomas’ use of the “race card.” Famously, the highly publicized OJ Simpson case transformed into a contention of race-empirically behooving Simpson.[9]

The film successfully proposes these questions of race regarding Thomas; however, it fails to investigate how Hill’s race as an African-American woman came into play. Some of film’s senators claim that race does not affect the situation because of the same-raced nature of the individuals, but a better production may have probed how differently the case would have been handled if the defendant and plaintiff were of different races. As such, the producers leave the audience wondering, if Anita Hill was white, would Thomas serve as a Supreme Court judge today? Would she have actually been taken seriously in front of the panel of white men? Confirmation briefly contemplates this question when Hill’s lawyer mentions the case would have proceeded differently if the plaintiff were white. Though fairly accurate historically speaking, the film’s concentration on Hill’s race in conjunction with her gender could have transformed this film from a historical thriller to a revolutionary social and political commentary that could highlight the latent flaws intrinsic to “the American system.”

The Hill-Thomas controversy has had a long-standing effect on both congressional politics and gender politics in the workplace. EEOC records document Hill’s legacy with a 50% increase in sexual harassment claims the year following her testimony.[10] Although a large number of cases remain unreported or unresolved, Hill’s courage revolutionized the perception of sexual harassment in the workplace proving that one voice can change history. The year after the testimony became known as “The Year of the Woman” with female delegation increasing by 24 members in the House of Representatives and by three in the Senate.[11]

Though women constitute twenty percent of today’s congress, the gap in equal representation persists and sexual harassment remains a paramount issue in American politics.[12] Nevertheless, the cultural dynamic seems to have hit a turning point. Media deemed the past year as the second “Year of the Woman” as sexual harassment awareness heightened with social campaigns such as the #MeToo movement.[13] Over 202 men have been accused of sexual misconduct in the past few months, including high-profile men like Harvey Weinstein, a famed Hollywood director.[14] In Anita Hill’s words, the only way to truly end the pervasive culture of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct is “recognizing it, acknowledging it, bringing women into the process as full participants who can testify honestly about their experiences, and then being willing to make hard decisions.”[15] This system provides an approach that can foster societal gender parity. Feminism follows a punctuated equilibrium—advances come in waves. Hill initiated a new wave of feminism preceded by Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks and followed by #MeToo last year.

 

[1] Rosenwald, Michael S. “Re-watching Joe Biden’s Disastrous Anita Hill Hearing: A Sexual Harassment Inquisition.” The Washington Post. December 14, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2018.

[2] Confirmation. Directed by Rick Famuyiwa. Performed by Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce. HBO. 2016. Accessed April 1, 2018.

[3] The Film Archives. “”High-Tech Lynching”: Clarence Thomas Speaks on Anita Hill – Confirmation Controversy (1991).” YouTube. October 31, 2013. Accessed April 02, 2018.

[4] Blake, Meredith. “What Anita Hill And, Yes, Clarence Thomas Taught ‘Confirmation’s’ Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce.” Los Angeles Times. April 15, 2016. Accessed April 02, 2018.

[5] Confirmation.

[6]  Stuart, Tessa. “Anita Hill on ‘Confirmation,’ Joe Biden and Bill Cosby.” Rolling Stone. April 11, 2016. Accessed April 02, 2018.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Film Archives.

[9] Dunne, Dominick. “How O.J. Simpson’s Dream Team Played the “Race Card” and Won.” Vanity Fair. January 28, 2016. Accessed April 02, 2018.

[10] U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Sexual Harassment Charges.” Sexual Harassment Charges. Accessed March 25, 2018.

[11] Strauss, Alix. “Key Moments Since 1992, ‘The Year of the Woman’.” The New York Times. April 02, 2017. Accessed April 02, 2018; United States Senate. “Year of the Woman.” United States Senate. March 09, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2018.

[12] “Women in U.S. Congress 2017.” Women in U.S. Congress 2017 | CAWP. 2018. Accessed April 02, 2018.

[13]  CBS. “More than 12M “Me Too” Facebook P.” CBS News. October 17, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2018; Park, Andrea. “#MeToo Reaches 85 Countries With 1.7M Tweets.” CBS. October 24, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2018.

[14]  North, Anna. “Sexual Misconduct Assault Allegations List.” Vox. December 22, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2018.

[15] Stuart.

References

Blake, Meredith. “What Anita Hill And, Yes, Clarence Thomas Taught ‘Confirmation’s’ Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce.” Los Angeles Times. April 15, 2016. Accessed April 02, 2018. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-confirmation-kerry-washington-wendell-pierce-20160414-story.html.

CBS. “More than 12M “Me Too” Facebook P.” CBS News. October 17, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/metoo-more-than-12-million-facebook-posts-comments-reactions-24-hours/.

Confirmation. Directed by Rick Famuyiwa. Performed by Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce. HBO. 2016. Accessed April 1, 2018. https://www.hbo.com/movies/confirmation.

Dunne, Dominick. “How O.J. Simpson’s Dream Team Played the “Race Card” and Won.” Vanity Fair. January 28, 2016. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/1995/11/dunne199511.

“George Bush: Presidential Debate at the University of Richmond – October 15, 1992.” The American Presidency Project. October 15, 1992. Accessed April 03, 2018. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=21617.

North, Anna. “Sexual Misconduct Assault Allegations List.” Vox. December 22, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2018. https://www.vox.com/a/sexual-harassment-assault-allegations-list/alex-jones.

Park, Andrea. “#MeToo Reaches 85 Countries With 1.7M Tweets.” CBS. October 24, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/metoo-reaches-85-countries-with-1-7-million-tweets/.

Rosenwald, Michael S. “Re-watching Joe Biden’s Disastrous Anita Hill Hearing: A Sexual Harassment Inquisition.” The Washington Post. December 14, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/11/24/rewatching-joe-bidens-disastrous-anita-hill-hearing-a-sexual-harassment-inquistion/?utm_term=.098452a37da4

Strauss, Alix. “Key Moments Since 1992, ‘The Year of the Woman’.” The New York Times. April 02, 2017. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/04/02/us/02timeline-listy.html.; United States Senate.

Stuart, Tessa. “Anita Hill on ‘Confirmation,’ Joe Biden and Bill Cosby.” Rolling Stone. April 11, 2016. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/anita-hill-on-confirmation-joe-bidens-legacy-and-bill-cosby-20160411.

The Film Archives. “”High-Tech Lynching”: Clarence Thomas Speaks on Anita Hill – Confirmation Controversy (1991).” YouTube. October 31, 2013. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyUXuoBuNOE.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Sexual Harassment Charges.” Sexual Harassment Charges. Accessed March 25, 2018. https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment-a.cfm.

“Women in U.S. Congress 2017.” Women in U.S. Congress 2017 | CAWP. 2018. Accessed April 02, 2018. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-us-congress-2017.

“Year of the Woman.” United States Senate. March 09, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/year_of_the_woman.htm.

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