Directed by Rick Famuyiwa, HBO’s Confirmation (2016) shows us everything that’s wrong with the power-hungry politicians and sensation-hungry media. The film, more importantly, examines the gender inequality and the gross mishandling of sexual misconduct charges as narrow-minded victim-blaming tactics continue to prevail. This striking drama starts with TV news clippings showing the nomination of Clarence Thomas for Supreme Court judge by President H.W. Bush (in 1991).
He was touted to be the successor to the African-American judge Thurgood Marshall. Until John Kennedy’s period, there was no serious consideration given to appoint an African-American candidate as a Supreme Court judge.
After Marshall’s retirement, Bush, to preserve the current racial composition of Supreme Court, selected Thomas as the successor. But the ‘confirmation’ procedure for Justice Clarence Thomas became a national sensation, when African-American law professor Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment.
Played by “Scandal” fame Kerry Washington, Anita Hill is initially reluctant to come forward. A righteous woman Ricki Seidman (Grace Gummer) doing the background check, on behalf of the Senate Judiciary Committee calls professor Hill after hearing about the Judge’s misconduct through unconfirmed sources.
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Earlier, when a friend asks Hill whether she would speak against Thomas (Wendell Pierce), Hill calmly says, “I saw women have their lives ruined because they spoke out against a manager at a diner.” But, she eventually agrees to come forward when Ricki comments how her silence would ruin the sanctity of the Supreme Court.
Hill hopes that her charges would be thoroughly investigated by FBI (in secrecy) and due actions would be taken. But all hell breaks loose, as someone in the Senate office leaks Hill’s charges to the press.
Soon, Judge Thomas and Professor Hill are hounded by frenzied media people. The Republicans who backed Thomas’ nomination decide to throw dirt on Hill, while the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by chairman Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear) decides to conduct a public hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington D.C.
With her own little circle of supporters, including an empathetic lawyer Charles Ogletree (Jeffrey Wright), Hill arrives to Washington. In the hearings, Hill is subjected to read the statement, containing the sexual overtures and dirty comments made by Thomas, when she worked for him at Department of Education and later at EEOC. Hill is asked to quote the lewd words used for her, in front of the National Press.
In his reply to the charges, Thomas exhibits rage, calling the hearing ‘a national disgrace and high-tech lynching.’ The politicians conducting the hearing are left speechless by Thomas’ recrimination as Hill’s lawyer perfectly interprets the Judge’s denial of charges: “He acknowledged race because it was about him. You think any of those white boys on that committee are prepared to challenge him now?” In the media, everything’s been done by the Republicans (with the blessing of President) to assassinate Hill’s character and divert people’s attention from the charges.
Through the character of weak-willed Senator Biden, it is also depicted that the Democrats just stood by, playing equal role in suppressing the truth behind the Hill’s charges.
As one could expect from a TV movie, Confirmation is emotionally manipulative and unsubtle. Take the scene when Hill, towards the end, enters her office in Oklahoma Law College and sees a room full of letters. She reads a letter aloud and comes to an understanding that she has fought a worthy battle, despite experiencing a lot of bitter things.
The frames show the letter, her reading the letter, crying and a shot of her co-worker crying. The primary aim is to doubly emphasize so as to wring all our sympathy.
But, what saves Confirmation from being overly sentimental or ludicrous are the performances and Susannah Grant’s script. One might think the film doesn’t take sides, but that’s hardly true. The makers clearly favor Hill’s testimony (stressing on it several times in the narrative). Although it recurrently shows Thomas’ frustration. The one good thing is the film doesn’t caricaturize Thomas’ character.
People with their own pre-conceived notions about the case might think of Thomas’ anger as a misguided, self-preserving attempt or as the fury of a righteous man. For people with no knowledge about this hearing (like me), there are enough signs to stand by Hill’s side.
Writer Grant must have known that by truly presenting all the basic facts of the case (like citing the arrival of another woman claiming Thomas harassed her, who was not allowed to testify) alongside the fictionalized conversations, people devoid of prejudiced ideas are bound to take one side over the other.
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So, she makes Confirmation more than the conflict between Hill vs Thomas. Grant and director Fumuyima’s emphasis on the idiotic news shows and despicable behavior of politicians tends to make a nuanced comment on the collective harassment of a society against individuals seeking truth.
Without proclaiming bland messages of feminism, Grant is able to glimpse into the general, wrong perception about sexual harassment (since most think it involves physical contact). The script also fascinatingly challenges the conventional wisdom of how women had some kind of motivation to lie about their boss’ unwelcome advances.
Kerry Washington as Anita Hill, except for the strong emotional scenes, gives a good performance. Her reticent and stoic façade captures the complex emotions of a woman, pulled into the spotlight against her will. Bill Irwin as the debauched Senator Danforth does a fine job of inciting our rage.
Thanks to a gripping script and performances, Confirmation (110 minutes) works as a vital examination of the double standards that come into play when issues of sexual harassment or gender-based workplace discrimination arise. It’s yet another good political dramadrama from HBO, alongside Recount and Game Change.
By Arun Kumar
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’