In an age when a sitting president has been accused of sexual cigar tricks in the Oval Office with a White House intern, it may not be clear why anyone would choose to revisit the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill days, when all we had to worry about in the sexual harassment department was the occasional suggestive remark.
But those with an appetite for irony can feast to their fill at 8 p.m. tomorrow when Showtime premieres "Strange Justice," a docudrama rehash of Thomas's bitter 1991 confirmation fight following his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Based on the National Book Award-nominated account by Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, "Strange Justice" is a generally intelligent and informed retelling of the story, underlining the degree to which ideology and partisanship can degrade the political process and leave us all feeling like we need a good bath.
But it doesn't clear up much else. Whether you thought of Thomas then as a duplicitous right-wing puppet, an eloquent champion of individual liberty or something in between, you'll probably find little that will change your mind. The focus is on the process. But much of it is first-rate television, nonetheless.
As the controversy moves forward, director Ernest Dickerson jumps back and forth from Thomas's White House image-spinners on the right to the attack dogs on the political left, leaving Thomas and Hill largely enigmatic principals amid the fray.
The acting overall is as good as the script. If rangy Delroy Lindo bears little resemblance to the stocky Thomas (he's too old, and appears even more wooden in his mannerisms), Regina Taylor looks startlingly like Hill, and Louis Gossett Jr. as a smoothly disdainful Vernon Jordan almost steals the show.
Top honors, however, go to Mandy Patinkin as presidential fixer Kenneth Duberstein, who quarterbacks Thomas's confirmation to its stormy victory.
Under Dickerson's generally taut direction, there's a down-the-middle, as-it-happened portrait of the confirmation cat fight that's of interest to more than just political junkies. And there are some deft visual touches, as when cream swirling into black coffee becomes a visual metaphor for America's continuing dialogue on race, or when Duberstein carves into red meat in a restaurant as he plunges into the fight.
But occasionally Dickerson, a longtime associate of director Spike Lee, goes weirdly over the top, as when he has Thomas marching into the hearing room to a loud chorus of "Onward, Christian Soldiers." Or, most bizarrely, when he pictures Thomas giving his famous "this is a high-tech lynching" speech by ripping off his shirt in the Senate hearing room and appearing as a bare-chested, barefoot field hand.
Viewers who remember the hearings may understand that they're supposed to see that, too, as a visual metaphor, however forced. Others may think that's what really happened (it never did), or wonder if Thomas's words have been as distorted by the film as his actions (they aren't).
It's a surreal moment, as flatulent and historically distorting as most of the rest of the film is true, both to drama and to life.
And it unintentionally underlines the always disturbing aspects of the TV docudrama as an art form: the intentional blurring of fiction and reality. In the case of "Strange Justice," that extends to digitally imprinting the image of the TV Thomas alongside the real-life George Bush, and interspersing real TV tape of the hearings with the film's dramatization of the hearings. Then-Sen. John Danforth is played by an actor; Sens. Orrin Hatch and Edward Kennedy appear as themselves, on TV tape of the actual hearings. Sometimes the TV images watched by those in the film are artificial, sometimes they are those of the actual hearings. The reader is encouraged to think there is no real difference.
But there is a difference. And by telling us there isn't, Dickerson and executive producer-writer Jacob Epstein demonstrate a sense of reality as strange as the concept of justice they've worked so hard, and so artfully, to condemn.
CAPTION: He said: Delroy Lindo as Clarence Thomas, denying accusations of sexual harassment.
CAPTION: She said: Regina Taylor as Anita Hill, who leveled harassment charges against Thomas. "Strange Justice" airs tomorrow night at 8 on Showtime.
CAPTION: Regina Taylor as Anita Hill and Delroy Lindo as Clarence Thomas in Showtime's "Strange Justice," premiering tomorrow night at 8.