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'Confirmation' revisits Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas with Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce

Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas in the HBO docudrama "Confirmation."
Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas in the HBO docudrama "Confirmation."(HBO / Handout)

It was all there in the televised Senate hearings: Law professor Anita Hill alleging Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her with talk of porn films and pubic hair, while he angrily called the hearings themselves a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

And TV is taking us back to that mess in prime time on HBO this month.

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As millions of viewers arrive at the finish line of one docudrama revisiting race in 1990s America with FX's "The People v. O.J. Simpson," HBO is set to debut another with "Confirmation," a flashback to the 1991 Thomas hearings starring Wendell Pierce ("The Wire") as Thomas and Kerry Washington ("Scandal") as Hill.

Both events are landmark moments in our national past, and for all the problems I have with millions of us getting history from TV dramas, I welcome the added layer of relevance they lend to the national conversation on race that has engulfed us since the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Freddie Gray here.

"Confirmation" also arrives as the president and Senate are dueling over another Supreme Court vacancy, this one initiated by the death of Antonin Scalia in February. The Thomas nomination was made in an effort to fill the seat vacated by the retirement of Baltimore-born Thurgood Marshall.

As the film written by Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich") and directed by Rick Famuyiwa ("Dope") skillfully delineates, the Thomas hearings in 1991 initially looked to be more about gender than race — a male boss allegedly sexually harassing a young female employee in disgusting ways. But Thomas, like Simpson's defense team, managed to direct the conversation to race with his "lynching" statement before the all-white committee. Once that happened, the momentum shifted back in his direction, and all bets for rational nomination proceedings were off.

In the words of Charles Ogletree (Jeffrey Wright), Hill's lead attorney: "You think any of those white boys on that committee are prepared to challenge him now?"

The real TV hearings were a watershed cultural moment. Writing about them for The Baltimore Sun, I could not help but be seized by the tableau of this lone black woman sitting down below at the witness table and looking up at the all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee. Judging by comments made on cable TV and call-in radio talk shows at the time, that singular image also helped many viewers instantly understand the continued prevalence of patriarchy in a way no words had ever managed to do.

And what a sorry bunch of senators they were, according to their depiction in the film. In this telling, the ugliest attacks came from Republicans Alan Simpson, Arlen Specter and John Danforth. And they are shown doing their work of trying to discredit Hill in league with senior officials from the White House of George H.W. Bush, who nominated Thomas.

I am glad that Danforth and Simpson and some of the others are still alive to see how they are presented. And believe me, high-end docudramas are a serious draft of history. I have come to believe they might define our long-term national memory more than what's widely known as the "first draft of history" written by journalists.

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Simpson and Danforth have been critical in recent weeks of their depictions in the film.

" 'Confirmation' is based on historical events, but it is really a piece of entertainment that to a distressing extent distorts those events," Danforth wrote in an email to "The Hollywood Reporter." "The film contains scenes that never happened and conversations that never occurred. Some scenes that did happen are portrayed with significant inaccuracies."

HBO faced similar pre-debut complaints from GOP candidates Sarah Palin and John McCain on "Game Change," the docudrama filmed in Baltimore about the 2008 presidential race.

Unlike that film, which was based on a book of the same name by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, "Confirmation" is based primarily on original reporting by Grant, the film's screenwriter and executive producer. She employs first-person accounts, articles, books and news footage, and tapped former Newsday reporter Timothy Phelps — who broke the story of Hill's accusations and co-wrote the nonfiction book "Capitol Games" — as a consultant, according to an HBO spokeswoman.

Len Amato, president of HBO Films, said in an interview Friday that Danforth and Simpson are "criticizing off a very early draft" of the film and had not seen the product that will air. He said the film has evolved as it moved through HBO's vetting process and that the channel "stands behind" it. He added that Grant interviewed Simpson and Danforth as part of her research.

The Democrats on the panel don't fare much better than their colleagues across the aisle. Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear) chaired the committee and did little to stop the GOP senators from attacking Hill. The film shows him caving under pressure from Danforth on two major procedural matters that greatly helped Thomas and hurt Hill.

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The Biden viewers see here is not the kindly, progressive "Uncle Joe" characterization of the vice president now in vogue. The guy in the film is more concerned about a covering his butt and a toothache he has during the hearings than what's happening to Hill and possibly the future of the Supreme Court.

"Confirmation" derives much of its power from all that political and historical memory, to be sure. But beyond the cultural pop, it is also an engaging film with strong writing, sure-handed direction, superb editing and outstanding performances from Washington and Pierce.

The film deftly sets the stage for the Thomas hearings in the opening credits with archival footage of the 1987 Senate hearings on Ronald Reagan's failed nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. That battle was a bruising one. The bad blood remaining from that encounter spilled over into the Thomas hearings, with Republicans vowing not to be defeated again.

I cannot remember the last time I saw archival clips stitched so seamlessly into the fabric of a film. And that's crucial, because "Confirmation" is a TV movie about hearings that became cultural touchstones in large part because they were on TV, just as "The People v. O.J." is a TV miniseries about a trial now mainly remembered as a TV event.

In the end, I suspect most people will watch based on the presence of Pierce or Washington. Those doing so won't be disappointed.

This is more Washington's film than Pierce's. In a practical sense, that's not surprising, since she is also an executive producer. The mixture of moral authority, courage and vulnerability that she brings to her depiction of Hill leaves little doubt as to who the producers ultimately thought was telling the truth in this epic he-said/she-said confrontation. Washington's intense performance makes it difficult not to at least empathize with Hill and what she went through at the hands of this male-dominated Washington meat grinder.

Pierce has a harder task: taking a figure who seems to have gone out of his way to be silent and remote since joining the court and making viewers feel his anger and pain during the hearings. He succeeded on the anger, failed on the pain.

But Pierce found and communicated something deeper about Thomas: an inviolate sense of dignity at his core. I never understood that about Thomas and how crucial it was to his sense of identity. Pierce took an iconic figure and made him human. I wonder if Thomas or Danforth or Simpson will complain about that.

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On TV

"Confirmation" premieres at 8 p.m. April 16 on HBO.

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