Like the recently-concluded O.J. Simpson miniseries, Confirmation enlists well-known actors to portray well-known civilians in a true story in American history that was consumed with issues of race and sexism. In the case of the HBO film Confirmation, premiering Saturday night, Scandal’s Kerrie Washington plays Anita Hill, the law professor who felt compelled in 1991 to testify before Congress about the behavior of her former boss, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Thomas is played by Wendell Pierce, of Treme and The Wire.
Writer Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood) play it very straight: The film is a mostly-chronological, just-the-facts presentation of what happened from the moment President George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the Court. Many viewers will probably remember the most alarming details of the nomination process: Hill’s testimony about unwanted sexual talk from Thomas when she worked in his office, including his graphic descriptions of porn films he recommended; Thomas’s outraged counter-response to the charges, including his condemnation of the media coverage as “a high-tech lynching.”
There’s no trace of Olivia Pope in Washington’s Hill — the actor withholds emotions when Hill is in public to portray the latter’s self-consciousness (Hill was a very reluctant public figure) and professorial sobriety. Pierce is also restrained, capturing the stoicism that has become Justice Thomas’s most familiar public face.
Yet these muted central performances do not dull the film; Famuyiwa and Grant surround Hill and Thomas with boisterous performances by Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden, Treat Williams as Ted Kennedy, and Bill Irwin as John Danforth, all of them Senators drawn into the media storm created by the accusations. The film does a good job of capturing what was new in this spectacle: The sight of a black woman leveling charges against a black man, both of them surrounded by mostly-white, mostly-male government officials placed in the position of passing judgment on both.
We know that, in the end, Thomas was voted onto the Court, and that Hill withdrew from public prominence to resume her scholarly work. Confirmation tries hard, at its own conclusion, to position Hill as a feminist hero whose testimony was an inspiration to many people, but Washington’s performance so thoroughly captures the degree to which Hill did not seek or desire such a status, it’s difficult to imagine that Anita Hill sees herself as the proud crusader the film would like to leave us with.
Confirmation debuts Saturday night at 8 p.m. on HBO.