In 1991, two American wars ended in expected victories, in ways no one had expected. The befuddled United States Senate, not knowing how to exploit the triumphs, started a war of their own…on behalf of the Supreme Court. Last night HBO aired a movie about it – about the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings – called “Confirmation.” Herein find my historical context and my histrionic content.
In 1990, patrician President George Bush became the first commander-in-chief since Franklin Roosevelt to ask for Congress’ permission for war, in this case for Kuwait against Iraq, and America girded itself for a years-long conflict that was oddly over in a few weeks. Not long after, a years-long conflict that no one thought would ever end, the Cold War, concluded as the Soviet Union collapsed under the combined weight of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, economic foundering, Kremlin overreaction, and Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank. With the world apparently sorted, America could focus on its own problems, and for many, this meant addressing the systematic injustice revealed by both golden age hip-hop and the Rodney King video. The movie “Confirmation” dealt with none of this context; instead, it went back four years to President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, the backlash it produced, and the new verb “Borking.” On one level this makes sense; on another, it plays directly into the right-wing version of the 1980s, whereby the Democrats supposedly politicized what was never a political process.
Another way of seeing that 1991 autumn was that after two suddenly concluded wars, while a nation waited for the four Rodney King-beating cops to face trial, black people were rather unexpectedly put on their own very visible trial: did a black person have to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court? Could a black woman accuse that black successor of sexual harassment without being accused of betraying her race? Could a televised panel of white men with their own sexual peccadilloes really judge a black man’s sexual past fairly? Where did Thomas get the idea to play the race card by accusing the Senate of a “high-tech lynching”? (Why not “modern lynching”?)
I wouldn’t blame “Confirmation” for barely lingering on these questions, had it sublimated them to matters of character, but the strange thing about “Confirmation” is that after watching it, one barely knows anything more about either of its two central characters, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. We never learn any more about either of them than what they expressed to America via the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is by no means a knock against the actors, who do as much as the script lets them; Kerry Washington, as Hill, is particularly impressive at de-Olivia Pope-izing herself, becoming less combative (though many might have played Hill as more combative) and giving her lines an intellectual’s slight lack of polish.
What was Thomas thinking? In the 80s or at the hearings? What was Hill thinking? As though it’s afraid to get sued by these two still-living people, the show barely stops to ask, though at one point a Senator takes a break from publicly accusing Hill of mental illness to ask her why she continued to work for Thomas, and she admits that more work needs to be done by psychologists, because she knows it happened to her. It’s a rare moment of lucid vulnerability during a movie that mostly maintains stiff-upper-lip facades. It’s also telling that it came straight from the hearings transcript.
HBO itself recently revisited this period, far more successfully, with its miniseries “Show Me a Hero.” As for features, Straight Outta Compton recently shone more light on the early 1990s. And as many critics have already noted, “Confirmation” suffers by comparison to FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” All three of those projects had more to say about blacks, fame, and white hypocrisy in the 1990s than does “Confirmation.” And whatever else you want to say about TPVOJS producer Ryan Murphy, he doesn’t scrimp on character motivation. On FX’s series, Marcia Clark admits that she’d been looking for “vengeance for victims” ever since she was raped…admits this in the tenth and final episode. Had she admitted it sooner, her character would have played as a two-dimensional avenger for the whole series; had she not admitted it at all, her character would have been…more like Anita Hill in “Confirmation.” (And if Murphy had made “Confirmation,” someone at some point would have said “Uncle Tom,” no matter how withering a glance that character received.)
“Confirmation” is less concerned with race than it is with feminism – we spend almost as much time with Biden and Kennedy’s young white female aides as we do with Hill and Thomas. Just to choose a 1991 film analogy, Kennedy’s aide turns into Louise, prodding her Thelma to do the right thing as they strike a blow against the patriarchy. (Just to choose another one, Hill hires as her personal attorney her bestie, played by Erika Christensen, who is so supportive and sidelined that she reminds me of no one so much as Kasi Lemmons, Clarice Starling’s bestie, only here the races have been reversed from The Silence of the Lambs.) Other female aides roll their eyes at their male co-workers’ cluelessness; women are shown in news clips saying “it happened to me”; Hill returns to Oklahoma to an apparent avalanche of letters from grateful women. And the end titles make it clear that while Hill may have lost the battle, women won the war, or at least made significant gains.
I’m all for a feminist narrative, but “Confirmation” fails by being too doctrinaire. It never points out that people often confuse the “sexual” in harassment; it’s supposed to mean “gender-based,” not “coitus-inspired” or likewise. Of all the scheming Republican Senators who have it out for Hill, not one of them ever says “She was never told ‘touch me or you’re fired,’ and she was never fired or demoted. What’s the problem?” This was a conversation everyone else in America was having in October 1991.
Instead, the film lets the Senators bicker and strategize ad nauseum. John Danforth must have mixed feelings today; on the one hand, he received more screen time than any other movie will ever give him; on the other hand, it was as a cartoon bad guy. With his eerily unerring Joe Biden accent, Greg Kinnear set the bar so high that I could hardly wait to hear Treat Williams pahrk Edward Kennedy’s cahr in Hahrvard yahrd, but he doesn’t even speak his one long line of dialogue like Mayor Quimby. The Simpson that’s instead featured is Alan, Senator of Wyoming, along with Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy and a lot of other people that America doesn’t know. As though the editors realized that the main production was a little too Inside Baseball, they repeatedly splice in footage of the actual news anchors of the time, which is fun, but leaves one wanting more.
Along with the first Iraq War, the end of the Soviet Union, and the Rodney King tape, the Hill-Thomas hearings were an incredibly important part of a quite significant year, 1991. If nothing else they forced every American to have an opinion about sexual harassment and a phrase many had never heard, “unwanted advances.” (Arguably, famous statements like “he bragged about his penis size” and “he asked about his pubic hair on a Coke can” also contributed to the Howard Stern-ization of America that has now resulted in Donald Trump.) What’s strange about “Confirmation” is that it feels like it could have been made in 1993. It’s more docudrama than melodrama, and that’s not enough. If we’re this far from the events, we expect at least as much light as heat, particularly in the midst of another Supreme Court standoff. Every day since his confirmation, Clarence Thomas has been mostly silent, and “Confirmation” does little more than prove that silence can have an echo.