Review: ‘Confirmation’ on HBO is as powerful as Anita Hill’s testimony was 25 years ago

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Covering an admirable amount of ground in a short amount of time, all roads in “Confirmation,” HBO’s new dramatization of the confirmation hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, lead to one indelible image:

A lone black woman, still and straight, facing a double-row gallery of powerful white men, none of whom want to hear what she has to say.

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This is Anita Hill, played with masterful and illuminating restraint by Kerry Washington, as she sits before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Even before she speaks, quietly describing the ways in which Thomas (Wendell Pierce) allegedly sexually harassed her during the time she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the sight is, as it was 25 years ago, a stunning revelation.

As is the film itself.

Susannah Grant has said she wrote “Confirmation” to remind those old enough to remember, and explain to those who were not, of the importance and bravery of Hill’s testimony. How it shook up the government and the nation, broke the silence surrounding sexual harassment, exposed the vitriolic calculations of the nomination process and, perhaps above all, made obvious the need for more women in political office.

So though it follows the confirmation of a male Supreme Court justice by a predominantly male Senate, “Confirmation” is a story of women. First and foremost Hill, but also those behind the scenes and in the press who persuaded her to speak out so that Committee Chairman Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear) would take her seriously.

After establishing the politics of the nomination — President George H.W. Bush had to replace Thurgood Marshall just four years after Senate Democrats had rejected Reagan nominee Robert Bork (and then confirmed Anthony Kennedy) — “Confirmation” introduces its main players: Thomas, standing with the quietly pleased president while miles away at the University of Oklahoma, and Hill, who was not pleased but determined to remain quiet.

However, a member of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s staff (Grace Gummer) has been investigating rumors about Thomas. When she calls to ask about Hill’s experience working for the nominee, Hill decides to answer, in full.


Director Rick Famuyiwa manages to present the baroque proceedings with admirable economy, and from “Confirmation’s” first moment to its last, Washington anchors the action and the tone with a subtle, vivid performance. Never straying from the law professor’s historic calm and low, modulated tones, she still infuses each scene with the emotional turmoil of Hill’s experience, both as an alleged victim of sexual harassment and the key player in a high stakes drama.

Because if Hill has no political agenda, pretty much everyone else involves does, and “Confirmation” is admirably ruthless in its presentation of all of them.

Thomas remains steadfast in his denials and, until the moment when he famously lashes out at what he calls a “high tech lynching,” spends much of the film in signature silence, which Pierce deftly uses to suggest a panoply of emotions, from shock and rage to touching bewilderment, without ever quite committing to one reaction or another.

His team, on the other hand, is quickly focused. Republican Sens. John Danforth (Bill Irwin), Arlen Specter (Malcolm Gets) and Alan Simpson (Peter McRobbie) are first dismissive, then argumentative and finally resort to outright smear tactics.

The Democrats aren’t much better. Kennedy (Treat Williams) is hamstrung by his own record with women and Biden, who Kinnear portrays in contrasting tones of self-pity and sincere political anguish, is initially reluctant to sully himself or the proceedings with what he fears is personal, possibly vindictive, dirt.

Only when forced into action by a small group of female members of Congress does Biden allow time for Hill’s written testimony to be submitted, and only when NPR’s Nina Totenberg somehow gets a copy of that statement does the committee agree to hear Hill’s testimony.


The rest is painful history, powerfully told.

Though it fits nicely into HBO’s collection of political dramas, including “Recount” (the 2000 presidential election) and “Game Change” (Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential campaign), “Confirmation” has a closer emotional and thematic kinship with FX’s recently completed “The People v. O.J Simpson.”

Filled with affecting and nuanced performances, “Confirmation” is an upsetting film to watch, hitting far too close to the bone to feel like a period piece about a regrettable moment from which we have learned.

Partisan acrimony continues to rule Congress, threatening to obstruct the next Supreme Court appointment; women still struggle to have their issues taken seriously, and though the House and Senate may be more diverse than they were in 1991, the current Congress is still 80% male and 80% white.

Which may be exactly why we all need to see what happened in 1991 all over again.



Where: HBO

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)