HBO’s ‘Confirmation’ Revisits Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and Drama in the Senate


“You had this human drama taking place, and it happened to hit on all of the sexy parts of what an audience loves in any drama,” said Rick Famuyiwa, the director of the movie. “There’s sex, there’s race, and it’s about power and institutions.”

Not everybody was as interested in revisiting the case. The filmmakers were aware that there has been almost no effort to dramatize the 1991 proceedings precisely because of the searing emotional effect they had.

“There’s that phrase that history is written by the winners,” said Susannah Grant, the movie’s writer and an executive producer. “Nobody won. Who had an investment in making sure we remembered this? I can’t think of anyone.”

Ms. Grant and HBO, instead, pointed to the effect that the hearings did have: The Senate Judiciary Committee would soon no longer be composed solely of white men, and sexual harassment was elevated to a topic of national discussion.

“It put sexual harassment on the table,” said Len Amato, the president of HBO Films. “It reached into the corporate world, it reached into the halls of justice with legislation, and it kind of reached into the population that the old rules weren’t cool anymore.”

Photo

Anita Hill in 1991.

Credit
Paul Hosefros/The New York Times

Ms. Washington and Mr. London were both interested in doing something for television on the hearings following the premiere of the 2013 documentary “Anita.” After working independently of each other for a brief period, they quickly joined forces.

Ms. Washington, who is also an executive producer, said that she recalled the hearings vividly. She was a 14-year-old growing up in the Bronx watching as her normally united parents became deeply divided over the proceedings: Her mother was sympathetic to Ms. Hill; her father, she said, was compassionate to an African-American man who he felt was being “publicly skewered.” To make the racial issues all the more complex, Mr. Thomas was being nominated to replace Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice.

Ms. Washington said she prepared for the role by meeting with Ms. Hill several times and watching hours and hours of the proceedings (“My husband could probably do the hearings verbatim because we watched them so much,” she said).

She spent a lot of time working out Ms. Hill’s rather affectless speech patterns, and she said that Ms. Hill’s deliberate approach reminded her of something she often talks about with Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer of “Scandal.” Ms. Hill was what they both describe as the “first and the only.”

“Often times, especially 25 years ago, if you’re the first and the only in the room, you’re careful about what you say and how you say it because you’re representing your entire gender and you’re representing your entire race,” Ms. Washington said. “You see a lot of that in how she presents herself.”

But Ms. Washington and the producers said they wanted to pivot away from the firm point of view that the documentary “Anita” took, which was clearly supportive of Ms. Hill.

Ms. Washington said it would have been a “mistake to make a movie for” Ms. Hill’s approval.

The filmmakers wanted to include Mr. Thomas’s point of view as well. “Confirmation” includes scenes when he’s at home with his wife and son as the nomination process goes topsy-turvy. The producers wanted to portray Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. ( Greg Kinnear), who led the Senate proceedings somewhat controversially, with empathy. (Neither Justice Thomas nor Vice President Biden spoke to the filmmakers.)

Though the filmmakers were adamant that the movie does not take on a point of view, Mr. London did concede: “There’s no question that if you look at the architecture of the movie that Anita’s journey bears the marks of a heroic story.”

Similar to HBO Films’ “Game Change,” about the 2008 election, former Republican senators and members of the Bush White House have already taken issue with the new film’s portrayal and said that the movie is rife with inaccuracies.

Other than Ms. Hill, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Biden, the other leading presence in “Confirmation” is the news media. The film leans heavily on archival footage from what was then the three major broadcast networks, CNN and C-Span.

“The media itself is definitely a character,” said Ms. Grant, the writer. “And we wanted to make it clear that this was happening in a very tightly sealed little crucible in D.C., but at the same time its ripples were fanning out kind of alarmingly. And that was circling back into this pressure cooker.”

Ms. Washington said there was one other aspect that attracted her to the project. One person portrayed in the movie, Judy Smith, was a member of the Bush White House who was also the inspiration for Olivia Pope, the smooth Washington fixer Ms. Washington plays on ABC’s “Scandal.”

“I liked the idea of playing somebody who was coming up against this D.C. power structure and didn’t have the currency or power and influence that Olivia Pope has,” she said. “Anita was somebody that was on the outside, somebody who didn’t have the power and somebody who was up against the powers that be.”

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