There are no flashbacks in HBO’s Confirmation. There is no point where Supreme Court justice candidate Clarence Thomas (played by Wendell Pierce, of The Wire and Treme) actually approaches his assistant Anita Hill (Scandal star Kerry Washington) to ask who put pubic hair in his Coke. On the other hand, there’s no smoking gun in her camp, either, no moment where she comes across as insincere or politically motivated in her public accusations that Thomas sexually harassed her when she worked for him 10 years earlier. Confirmation isn’t an entirely even-handed history of the Senate hearing that stalled Thomas’ confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court and monopolized political and social discourse in the summer of 1991. The film spends more time behind the scenes with Hill than with Thomas, and it lets her explain her perspective at length, while Thomas more often maintains a wounded silence, or flatly proclaims his innocence. But the film never takes an overt side on what happened between them. In spite of the double-edged title, Confirmation isn’t primarily about confirming anyone’s prejudices or convictions about the face-off.
Director Rick Famuyiwa (Dope, The Wood) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, The 5th Wave) open the film with a barrage of archival news footage that sets the scene: After famously liberal Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall announced his impending retirement, George H. W. Bush nominated the far more conservative Clarence Thomas to succeed him. A wave of protests from civil rights groups and women’s organizations followed, but Thomas’ confirmation seemed assured. In this version of the story, Ricki Seidman (Grace Gummer), a young investigator working for Ted Kennedy (Treat Williams), uncovers rumors that Thomas was known for mistreating women in his office. When she tracks down Hill, now a law professor at the University Of Oklahoma, and appeals to her sense of truth, Hill reluctantly agrees to anonymously cooperate with the investigation. From there, the system fails her at every level, as her statement is leaked to the press, then forced into the public record. Confirmation portrays the resulting hearings as harrowing for everyone: Hill, Thomas, their families, the White House, the Senate. No one really wants to be having an awkward, explicit conversation about porn stars and breast size in front of millions of Americans, but no one sees a way out of it that saves face for anyone involved.
Washington's pained, sympathetic portrayal of Hill is Famuyiwa and Grant's secret weapon, and it's Confirmation's most unbalancing element. Washington, who executive-produced the film, plays Hill as principled, intelligent, and unbowed in the wake of aggressive and humiliating inquiry, but still wounded and baffled at what her life's become. Pierce, meanwhile, plays Thomas as more removed, with a coldly patrician air, but his conviction that Hill is a liar seems entirely sincere. As several characters point out, they can't both be telling the truth. Famuyiwa and Grant effectively put their audience back into the mindset of Americans 25 years ago, choosing sides based on their own sympathies and experiences, given the lack of clear, concrete facts.
Instead of evidence, the filmmakers look to supporting characters for their opinions, particularly the women and people of color working in the Senate. Grace Gummer's idealistic aide and her counterpart in Joe Biden's office (played by Zoe Lister-Jones) repeatedly exchange terse words about what they believe about the conflict, and what their offices can afford to do. But more often, Famuyiwa just watches the silent resignation and clear frustration of staffers with opinions they can't afford to express, if they don't want to threaten their jobs, or put themselves on the same chopping block as Hill. There's a silent majority here, a Greek chorus with their voices muffled, and they're unmistakably on Hill's side.
While Confirmation doesn't pillory Thomas, it is frank about condemning several of the major players in the hearing. All of them are aging white men with political capital invested in the outcome, and little to no sympathy for Hill. There's been a minor backlash against Confirmation from some of the men most vilified in the film, though it's worth noting that many of them are responding to content in an earlier script that was clearly revised before shooting.
Still, Confirmation is frank and unapologetic about portraying Senators John Danforth (Bill Irwin) and Alan Simpson (Peter McRobbie) as ruthless and biased, and Vice President Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear) — at the time, a senator and judiciary committee chair — as weak and unprincipled. Their behind-the-scenes West Wing-style finagling comes with some theatrics, particularly when a coalition of congresswomen storm the Senate gates to demand a delay on Thomas' confirmation. There's some raw ugliness as well. Grant doesn't go so far as to point to people who are actively enjoying the situation, or hoping to capitalize on it to scuttle Thomas' nomination. But she has a bleakly realistic idea of how political compromise happens, and how little it has to do with human feeling. The only major name who earns some plaudits here is Ted Kennedy, who responds to Seidman's gentle pleas with some cautious kindness for Hill. It isn't much, but it's more than most of the Senate offers her.
But in spite of all the behind-the-scenes tension, the film often lacks a vital spark. Famuyiwa directs it like a middlebrow prestige picture, all tasteful compositions and somber music. It's reserved and dignified, but not creatively staged. Grant's reliance on Hill and Thomas' public statements, and the predictable unfolding of historical events turns the story into a series of bullet points on a classroom syllabus. Jennifer Hudson brings in some much-needed energy as Thomas co-accuser Angela Wright, but her role is brief, and quickly sidelined. And when Hill finally steps off the record and confronts her lawyer Charles (Jeffrey Wright) with her frustration, Confirmation briefly feels more like a heartfelt drama than a dispassionate lecture. Alone with people they trust, Hill and Thomas reveal their private agonies. It's telling that in similar private moments, the senators only reveal prejudices and ambitions.
HBO has a rocky history with representations of women in its shows, let alone people of color: For every Girls, there are a dozen series about men in power in various eras, behaving badly and self-indulgently, and using women as toys or tools. Confirmation feels like it's examining the same powerful men and badly used women from a different, more restrained angle. There's plenty of blame to go around — at one point, Thomas rails about the Senate's hypocrisy, given that the men judging him all have their own sexual and ethical improprieties on the record — but Confirmation ultimately lays most of the blame on systems of power, and the people who abuse it, whether consciously or out of oblivious entitlement. By refusing to directly indict either Hill or Thomas, the film winds up indicting everything and everyone around them.
Confirmation debuts on HBO at 8PM ET on Saturday, April 16th.