a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Susannah Grant, screenwriter & executive producer; Rick Famuyiwa, director
What: Historical Drama
When: Released April 16, 2016
Why Watch: Confirmation covers the notorious 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearing of Clarence Thomas (the second African American to serve on the court), when Anita Hill (an African-American attorney and professor), accused him, her previous employer, of sexual harassment. Screenwriter Susannah Grant is known for penning female-driven films such as Erin Brockovich, for which she received an Oscar nomination, as well as one of my favorite TV shows from my youth, Party of Five (which she also directed). Director Rick Famuyiwa is known for writing and directing films that showcase the African-American experience such as The Wood and the critically acclaimed Dope.
Confirmation is not so much a conventional, admirable film (though it is those things) as it is a stirring, frustrating, and angry call both to act for women and as women. Many critics – all men, tellingly – have found it lacking, especially as compared to the similarly (racially) themed docudrama The People vs. O.J. Simpson (which, let it be known, I couldn’t get past episode two). And to be fair, it does read like a TV movie-of-the-week – though with mostly superb performances (Greg Kinnear’s sketch-comedy impersonation of Senator Joe Biden not withstanding) and an intense efficiency that starts the film mid-investigation, replete with pointed archival media coverage, and doesn’t let up until the Senate’s inevitable, and damning, confirmation of Thomas.
It’s no surprise that Confirmation is penned by the same woman who adapted Erin Brockovich’s scrappy, sassy form of environmental activism for the big screen. We don’t learn much about Anita Hill (Kerry Washington) outside of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings – she’s a law professor in Oklahoma – but we don’t need to. Washington gives her best performance to date as the hesitant, serious Hill. With a furrowed brow and halting, nervous speech, she, a largely alone black woman in 1991, recounts for an all-white and powerful committee the times when Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce) – her superior at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (oh, the irony) – asked “Who put pubic hair on my Coke?” and detailed the endowment of porn star “Long Dong Silver.” It’s a guarded, restrained, and powerful performance of a reluctant accuser who never intended to speak out against her harasser. (A Senator’s aid played by Grace Gummer approaches her in an attempt to find dirt that would derail Thomas’s nomination.) When asked specifically, she simply feels she must tell the truth, and in doing so, shakes a nation’s views on sexual harassment and gender in the workplace.
Despite director Rick Famuyiwa’s documentary-like ambitions, even he can’t help but be partial to Hill, who, while he washes her with the harsh lighting of a police interrogation, directs Wendell Pierce to play the senator with a conflicted, nearly guilty air about him, despite his incendiary claim that the investigation is just a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” (As Hill’s lawyer, played by Jeffrey Wright, acknowledges, Thomas “is trying to dismiss you precisely because you’re a black woman. It’d be very different if you looked like his [white] wife.”) While both Grant and Famuwiya clearly believe Hill’s story, their film does more than support the victims of sexual harassment; it also explicitly denounces the hypocrisy of those in judgement. As Thomas himself points out, the majority of the senators are themselves acting in an “ethics cloud” of financial and sexual scandals.
In the end, though, Confirmation exists as a clear and galvanizing call for women’s and victims’ rights. As we hear the accused Thomas speak forcefully on his values and decency, we see, but can’t hear, Hill tell a reporter her side of the story; as is so often the case, here, the victim is silenced. When a white male politician observes “These girls always think it’ll help talking to the press but everytime they come off looking cheap,” Hill speaks articulately and believably, and a black female politician retorts, “She doesn’t look cheap to me.” Confirmation details the fine line that women in politics are forced to balance as they bite their tongues and all but roll their eyes when the old boys club makes derogatory comments about women. It also attempts to explain why victims would choose to remain in contact with their harassers (“Being a black woman you have to put up with a lot. So you grit your teeth and you bear it”).
In the wake of the 1991 hearings, the number of sexual harassment cases filed with EEOC doubled, and the number of women elected to Congress was the largest of any single election in nation’s history. Despite its directorial lack of subtlety (perhaps because of it), Confirmation‘s straightforward, urgent, and economic take on gender politics makes it a powerful reminder – especially now, during our current election – that change is incited when women harness their power and their voices by speaking out.
Bechdel Test: PASS
Racial Bechdel Test: PASS