Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.
Their names are synonymous with the very public hearings about very private matters that led Americans to rethink our collective perspective on race, workplace equity, sexual harassment, victims’ rights and adjudicating in the public eye.
And to side-eye our Coke cans in the process.
In 1991, more than 20 million TV viewers were riveted as the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by then-Senator Joe Biden, investigated claims that controversial Supreme Court nominee Thomas sexually harassed Hill when the ambitious young attorney worked for him a decade before. Twenty-five years later, HBO’s Confirmation — starring Scandal’s Kerry Washington as Hill, Suits’ Wendell Pierce as Thomas and Greg Kinnear as Biden — revisits that pivotal time in America’s social and political landscape to take stock of our progress.
For Washington, who was 14 at the time of the hearings, this very real D.C. scandal was the stuff of earnest family discourse. “My mother was an academic who had very passionate feelings about it as a woman of color,” she explains. “My dad had very passionate feelings about it as a black man. And I was immersed in how complicated and how complex the issues were, from a very young age. It stuck with me how passionate both of my parents were — and how differently they looked at the situation.”
Washington, who co-executive produces the film, and Pierce applaud how carefully screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) tended the humanity of their lightening-rod characters. “I hope people don’t prejudge the film because of [Thomas’] reputation,” Pierce says. “I had to check my own prejudice about who I thought he was, and then had this wonderful epiphany studying the man and realizing how much we had in common. … I didn’t think of him as a political figure; I thought of him as a man about to lose the greatest opportunity he ever had.”
“What was important for all of us in the making of this film is that we courageously stick to the complexity of the situation and not try to one-note any character or any one moment of this process,” adds Washington, noting that the cast went through sexual harassment prevention training before they started filming.
“What’s great about doing a film like this is what film is supposed to do,” Pierce continues. “Where we have a conversation as a society, and as viewers of the film, to say, ‘What are our values? What do we consider important? And how are we going to act on those?’”
“‘Who did you believe?’ — that is a very provocative question,” Washington concludes. “But one of the things that we learned that was most exciting was when you start to tell this story and you pull back the curtain, is the story is way more complicated than just ‘he said, she said’ — layers of politics and pressure and power and status and need and vulnerability and history and passion — and yet, it is still that.”
Confirmation premieres Saturday, April 16, at 8/7CT on HBO.