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Courtesy of HBO

December 21, 2016

Confirming the Excellence of Confirmation

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Confirmation is a timely exploration of gender, race and power, based on the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce). However,the movie is not really about Thomas — it follows Anita Hill (Kerry Washington), who shares her experiences as his advisor and assistant, and was subjected to sexual harassment by him. A historical drama at the genre’s best, Confirmation presents the proceedings mostly factually, although leaning to the side of Anita Hill. The bias doesn’t seem to get in the way of fact, and allows an important story to be told.

Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas share many characteristics. They were both born poor and black in the mid-1900s South. They are reserved, deliberate and proud scholars of law. They have spent their lives carefully curating themselves, leaving no room for error. Their personal devotion to perfection takes away some of their humanity. They stray from each other once they take their sides on this debate, where Justice Thomas remains composed and hardened in his dismissal, while Hill has to go much farther to present her side, becoming emotional and showing the humanity missing from most of the portrayal of Thomas.

Hill is a strong and deliberate character, calculating her every action. She wavers a little as she realizes that the world she has painstakingly constructed is beginning to crumble. She tries desperately to maintain the perfection that she needs to succeed as a black woman in academia and law, becoming nervous at her loss of control. Despite being taken apart piece by piece, often belittled and placed at the center of national attention, she maintains most of her poise and stands her ground for a long time. She is forced to explain private, uncomfortable memories in front of a Senate committee of all white men who she can relate to very little, while it is broadcast live on TV. While it’s reasonable that Hill must bear the burden of proof, to do so on such a public scale is incredibly difficult. Kerry Washington does an outstanding job portraying Anita Hill, with her strength and vulnerability in such a taxing situation.

Thomas, on the other hand, saw his future slipping away, but showed much less concern. His character in the film has much less developed but his stoicism has eerie. His comments in the trial were obstinate or off-topic, refusing to yield any personal information to clear his name.

This story is about a black woman who did almost everything right. She worked hard, maintained professionalism, and considered her future in every decision she made. She says it herself: “I don’t get sloppy.” Still, she ends up in a senate hearing testifying against a Supreme Court nominee, where she loses most of the control and refinement she has crafted.

It is a story about power, and how Thomas could abstain from defending himself while Hill was putting everything she had forth to make the United States a little more just.

It is a story about race, as Thomas defended himself by dismissing the accusations and hearings as a racist — a “high-tech lynching” he called it. They were speaking to a committee formed exclusively of white men. The cinematography makes these racial divides very clear, highlighting the homogenous Senate and groups watching the hearings on TV. It’s not something in the background or reading between the lines, it’s clear when the shot switches from Hill or Thomas to the Judicial Committee that they are different races.

It is a story about gender, and Hill’s search for respect from Thomas, from the Senate and from the American people. The film shows the different reactions of women and men to what Hill and Thomas said, whether they were originally for or against Thomas’s confirmation.

Confirmation is the story of how Anita Hill’s race, gender and power intersected during her time working with Thomas and her time speaking out about it. And it’s a good story. It’s a story that should be heard and talked about. At the time of the hearings, Hill sharing her experiences led to an increase in the recognition of sexual harassment claims, increase in willingness of people to speak up about their experiences with sexual harassment, and increased involvement of women in politics.

All of the problems Anita Hill faced during the hearing are relevant today, especially while race, gender, and power politics are in such a spotlight. It’s important that she didn’t win, because it leaves the topic open for discussion and improvement. It’s worth considering — how would the trial be different today. Would they have rushed through the confirmation like they did in 1991? Would having more than two women in the Senate, and any on the Judiciary committee have made a difference in the outcome? Confirmation is worth some thought.

Katie Sims is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kms425@cornell.edu.

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