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Almost 25 years ago—predating the O.J. Simpson kerfuffle by three years—the nation was swept up in the end of Judge Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings. University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill derailed the Supreme Court nominee when she stepped forward and confessed that while working two different jobs with Thomas—attorney adviser at the U.S. Department of Education, and as his assistant at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—he verbally sexually harassed her. (Ironically, the EEOC represents people who have been discriminated against.) For a few days in October 1991, Hill and Thomas sat before an all-white male Senate Committee on the Judiciary, spearheaded by then-senator Joe Biden. Hill, especially, had to divulge the humiliating and lascivious content Thomas besieged her with: mentions of big-breasted women doing unspeakable things to animals in porn; his “larger-than-normal penis;” his adulation of a well-endowed porn star named Long Dong Silver; a pubic hair on a Coke can.
People took sides, and it became a “he said/she said” maelstrom. Thomas denied the allegations and still won the nomination, 52-48, which became the slimmest margin in Supreme Court voting history. Today, the conservative Thomas still reigns in the Court. In the wake of the outcome, detractors coerced Hill to resign from her college position, but the brave action she took reverberated the following year: Four women got elected to the senate (Patty Murray, Carol Moseley Braun, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer) because of the Hill-Thomas debate. And since then, The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women has been enacted, and sexual harassment has garnered mainstream attention, as people came to realize how prevalent workplace mistreatment was.
This Saturday, the HBO film, Confirmation unpacks the events that occurred more than two decades ago, with Kerry Washington playing the valiant Hill, and The Wire’s Wendell Pierce as the questionable Thomas. Written by Erin Brockovich scribe Susannah Grant, co-executive produced by Washington, and directed by Dope’s Rick Famuyiwa, the intention of the film is to remind people of the history surrounding the hearings, which employs old news footage and demonstrates how the hearings planted the seed for the 24-hour news cycle.
Famuyiwa’s body of work, which includes Dope, The Wood, Our Family Wedding, and Brown Sugar, always deals with pressing social issues. In Confirmation, he deftly directs the all-star cast through the media agitation, giving viewers a behind-the-scenes peek of Thomas at home and the political machinations at work. But it’s the quieter moments of Washington alone in a room, her reflection refracted, that makes us really sympathize with her plight. We phoned up Famuyiwa and talked to him about how the themes of Confirmation still resonate today, how he thinks Thomas isn’t exactly a villain, and how he hopes the film sparks conversations on important issues.
What do you remember about the Anita Hill hearings?
I was a political science major before I transferred into film school. This whole thing with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas happened during my first year of college. It was a cross-section of race and politics and gender that I feel is still going on today.
It’s the 25th anniversary this year. Did you guys plan it that way?
We were obviously aware of it as we went into production but there are things that you can’t control, like, none of us had any idea that as we were making this film about a very contentious Supreme Court nomination that there would be a nominee coming out now. But I think we did understand that we would reflect upon this film with the perspective of what’s going on today, whether it’s this nomination or the continuing conversations around race or gender equality.
I kept thinking about Cosby and rape victims and how a lot of people still don’t believe women when they say they’ve been assaulted. How do you think our culture’s evolved since Anita Hill?
I think what Anita Hill did was significant and changed the conversation, and obviously there will continue to be challenges and remedies for the ills of our society that one moment won’t be able to fix, because 25 years later we’re still dealing with some of the issues that she did. The biggest part of what Anita Hill did was take away the stigma of coming forward, and it took a lot for her to do that. We don’t have these conversations, because of the fear that people won’t believe you or you'll get attacked if you come forward. She came forward anyway and continued to tell her story. I think that inspired a lot of women to do the same thing. Yes, we have a long way to go—still—in terms of race and gender in our society, but what Anita Hill did moved the conversation forward in very significant ways.
I like how the film remains objective. You don’t pick a side. Was that your intention?
Yeah, it was a part of how I wanted to tell the story, mainly because I felt like the “he said/she said” isn’t necessarily the most interesting part of what this event was. That’s not really why we remember it, because then it would just about a drama that played out between two people, and obviously people have opinions about who they believe and who they don’t. I felt like it would be a fool’s errand to try to definitively say who was telling the truth or not, even though you may have your own opinions about that.
The human drama of what these two people were going through—how it reflected society, how it reflected how we get represented, the juxtaposition of these two black people testifying before this all-white male panel of senators and how that imagery changed how we perceived this particular incident, and how we wanted to be represented in the future—I felt like were more important things to talk about.
What are your personal thoughts on Thomas? Do you think he’s a bad guy?
We are complicated people—everyone. But what I didn’t want to deal with was the easy caricatures that have been created of both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. I think so many people have lived with those caricatures and it was important for me, and for Kerry and Wendell, to say these were complicated human beings who make mistakes. We all would shudder if what we did, no matter what, in our 20s and early 30s were publicly displayed on a national stage. I could identify with both of these people, and, in that respect then, I don’t pass judgment on whether if they’re good or bad, because that’s not for me to do.
What’s your hope for the movie?
One, just that people watch it. Two, that it generates a conversation and starts a dialogue—whether it’s just with your friends, your spouse or your colleagues. Ultimately, I just want people to watch it, be entertained, and get a little bit of our history out of it, and understand what we’re going through now in a very interesting political environment.