Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Video review: "Confirmation"

If you’re looking for a fair and balanced depiction of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, you won’t find it here. “Confirmation” pretty well stacks things against Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee, and in favor of Anita Hill, his accuser.

She is the main character, who “changed history” by “making a stand.” The story, and the filmmakers’ sympathies, are clearly in her court.

What you will find are a pair of fine performances by Kerry Washington as Hill and Wendell Pierce as Thomas, playing two smart and ambitious African-Americans who braved the fiery hell of the media frenzy. Greg Kinnear also shines as feckless then-Senator Joe Biden, whose often inept chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee led to the spectacle of elected officials publicly discussing pubic hairs and the authenticity of Long Dong Silver’s… uh, assets.

Director Rick Famuyiwa and writer Susannah Grant do an excellent job of capturing the political climate of the early 1990s. The Republican operatives are shown as willing to do just about anything to support the nomination of Thomas, including conjuring up kooky diagnoses of Hill’s supposed “erotomania.” Meanwhile, the Democrats are transparently looking to “Bork” another conservative nominee because he won’t vote the way they like.

Sexual harassment was the cudgel they came up with, but anyone would do.

Without overtly depicting their relationship in flashbacks, the HBO film leaves some doubt as to the veracity of Hill’s claims. The film short-changes the other witnesses who testified for and against Hill, with several other former employees corroborating Hill’s statements about sexually graphic discussions in the office, but also omitting a dozen or so women who denied the claims and testified on behalf of his character.

Still, it’s never unclear where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie. Hill’s account is never doubted, while Thomas never receives the benefit of that doubt.

Perhaps the most egregious example is having Charles Ogletree (Jeffrey Wright), a revered Harvard law professor, telling Hill he’s supporting her because Thomas is “less qualified than some of my students.” Really? One wonders how many of his students had headed up two key federal agencies and been appointed a U.S. Court of Appeals district judge.

It’s a hallmark of the age we now live in – which the Thomas hearings helped usher in – in which disagreement is tantamount to revulsion. Our nation’s sense of civil discourse has never really returned.

In the end, “Confirmation” amounts to little more than picking at old scabs. We don’t learn anything we didn’t know already, though we get a better sense of Hill and Thomas as three-dimensional human beings.

Bonus features are rather thin. There are brief Q&As with Washington and Pierce on the historical impact of the hearings, plus a “Character Spot” featuring other cast members discussing the roles they play.



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