“The first time I saw it hanging in my trailer, it gave me chills,” Kerry Washington says of the replica of the iconic turquoise skirt suit that Anita Hill wore in 1991 during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination hearings. “It felt like a reminder to not give in to caricature.”
The actress plays Hill in “Confirmation,” a new and already controversial film that dramatizes the hearings, premiering April 16 on HBO. Hill, a law professor and former employee of Thomas’s, accused him of sexual harassment in the workplace, leading to a riveting weekend of Senate testimony from both figures and their supporting witnesses.
In the film, the camera lingers on the costume’s reveal, panning up slowly as Hill loops the last buttons, and pausing as she stands before a mirror. “I wanted to take time with that,” says director Rick Famuyiwa (“Dope,” “The Wood”). “That’s the moment Kerry becomes Anita Hill.” In a later scene, the linen bears crumpled wrinkles from 11 hours of testimony, “a subtle marker of just how much she endured,” Famuyiwa adds.
Given Washington’s liberal leanings and her title of executive producer, viewers may wonder whether “Confirmation” tilts in favor of Hill. But its creators say they were not interested in showing whose testimony was true. Screenwriter Susannah Grant, also an executive producer, was more interested in “the conflict between the function of government and the function of human beings,” Grant says. “The movie only has credibility if it’s not espousing one point of view or presenting only one side.”
When asked how exhaustive her research was, Grant replies, “Exhaustive is a good word.” Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) consulted more than 40 people connected to the hearings, and consumed countless memoirs, articles and televised accounts. To fact-check the script, producers shared an early draft with several players involved in the hearings.
In February, Politico reported that former Republican senators Alan K. Simpson (Wyo.) and John C. Danforth (Mo.), after seeing an early script, called it “unfair to everyone but Anita Hill” and “full of errors and distortions,” respectively, and that Mark Paoletta, one of Thomas’s lawyers during the hearings, threatened litigation. On the other hand, according to Washington, Hill “has complicated feelings” about the film. “We didn’t make it with the intention of her to approve. But she did feel good about my performance, which was emotional for me.” (Hill declined to comment for this article. At press time, Thomas had not responded to requests for comment.)
Is it difficult to dramatize historical moments that are readily available on YouTube? “Rather than feeling trapped by the source material, I tried to let it lead me in the right direction,” Washington says. “My husband could recite the entire hearing, verbatim, because we watched it so much in my house.”
Onscreen, Washington delivers the testimony in Hill’s famously soft, even-toned voice – a performance that’s nothing like the one Washington gives as the high-strung Olivia Pope on ABC’s smash hit “Scandal.” Although “Scandal” is also about D.C. politics, its soap-opera storylines are very different. “Yes, just a little bit,” Washington agrees with a laugh.
Pope was initially inspired by D.C. insider Judy Smith, who worked in the White House before becoming a public-relations crisis manager. Coincidentally, Smith, who was President George H.W. Bush’s deputy press secretary, is a character in “Confirmation,” played by Kristen Ariza. (In the film, Smith appears conflicted when her camp celebrates Thomas’s successful confirmation vote.) Pope no longer bears any resemblance to Smith, but, Washington says, “the weird thing for me was during the audition process. There were women coming in to read for the Judy Smith role, who were kind of doing an Olivia Pope. And I was like, ‘No! That’s not – no!’ That was trippy.”
Wendell Pierce (“The Wire,” “Treme”), who plays Thomas, scoured the video of the hearings for clues on how to play the enigmatic justice. One of the most important moments for him was a line from Thomas during the hearings: “If there is anything that has been misconstrued by Anita Hill or anyone else, then I can say that I am so very sorry.”
“That was a window into knowing that he was going through some self-reflection,” Pierce says. “That sentence said a lot. It spoke to his humanity.”
Pierce relates to Thomas’s experience in ways that surprised him. “It’s no secret that we are politically polar opposites. The greatest epiphany for me was to find out not how little we have in common, but how much,” he says, referencing their families’ shared histories in the South during slavery and Jim Crow, and their focus on education. “My grandfather used to say, ‘Can’t died three days before the creation of the world. Don’t ever tell me that you can’t do something.’ ” Pierce found a similar quote in Thomas’s memoir “My Grandfather’s Son,” which reads, “Old Man Can’t is dead — I helped bury him.” Pierce recalls, “That was eye-opening.”
In Famuyiwa’s rendering of the hearings, the point of view shifts constantly. Viewers see them firsthand, as well as through the fuzzy post-production rendering of a C-SPAN lens. They also see various Americans watch and react — White House staff members, Hill’s students, an anonymous kitchen staff, barflies, a parking attendant. Additionally, Famuyiwa threads in actual news footage of newscasters Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. “The press was as much a part of the story as the hearings were, and I wanted to acknowledge that,” Famuyiwa says. “It also connects the film to the audience because a bombardment of images is how we consume everything now.
“It was made for what would become the reality-TV age,” he adds. “This was the first taste of the world we now live in.”
Washington, who was 14 at the time of Thomas’s nomination, says the hearings split her household. “My dad felt compassionately pulled toward Thomas,” she recalls. “He understood the pain of being a black man put in that position and having your career ripped from you publicly. And I understood that, from the perspective of race. And through my mom’s eyes, I was aware of the gender politics, which was something my dad couldn’t as easily understand at the time. It was one of the first moments I was forced to engage with my own intersectionality as a woman and as a person of color, and how complex both of those identities could be.”
Famuyiwa, who grew up in the L.A. area as the son of Nigerian immigrants, was a political science major at the time, “at that very formative age when everything is about the system and challenging the system,” he says. He was struck by Thomas’s passionate speech comparing the hearings to a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”
“It really drove me into internal conflict,” he recalls, “what he said, and this panel of all white male judges looking at these two very accomplished black people.”
In “Confirmation,” Famuyiwa shows the aftermath of the famous speech, with an emotional scene featuring Hill and Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law school professor who advised her. Standing in a deserted hallway, Hill takes issue with Thomas’s metaphor, as the granddaughter of a man threatened with lynching. Then Ogletree brings her to understand that “he did tell a truth,” and asks, rhetorically, “Do you think any of those white boys on that committee are prepared to challenge him now?”
Famuyiwa explains, “How [that speech] affected and roiled them was important for me to get out. That scene in particular was personal.”
The scene gets to the film’s core issue. While Grant, the screenwriter, was making “Confirmation,” that issue started to shape the way she saw the world.
“There was a period when I saw everything [in the film] as a balance of power, or a balance between the issue of gender versus the issue of race,” she says. “There were no winners in this. It was difficult. It was painful for everybody involved. But you can’t say it wasn’t important.”
Confirmation premieres April 16 at 8 p.m. on HBO. 110 minutes.