In recent years HBO has perfected the current-events docudrama, with movies such as Recount, Game Change and Too Big to Fail, casting famous faces as other famous (and infamous) faces in re-enactments of notorious news stories. Confirmation continues in that solid tradition, taking on the 1991 Senate hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice. Written and executive-produced by Susannah Grant ’84 (Erin Brockovich, The Soloist) and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (Dope, The Wood), Confirmation is a straightforward re-creation of events that provides a showcase for some strong performances, especially from star (and fellow executive producer) Kerry Washington as Anita Hill, the law professor who accused Thomas of sexual harassment.

Susannah Grant ’84
Confirmation was written & executive-produced by Susannah Grant ’84.

Although Washington is clearly the star, and the movie portrays Hill and her struggle to be taken seriously with sympathy and care, Grant and Famuyiwa also resist demonizing Thomas, played by Wendell Pierce of The Wire and Treme

There’s no smoking gun in Confirmation, no dramatized moment that makes a definitive statement about the relationship between Hill and Thomas. The movie never flashes back to their time working together, and indeed never shows them directly interacting at all. Instead, it represents both of their perspectives through vehement public statements, and it shows them remaining just as vehement in private, Hill maintaining her quiet dignity and Thomas seething with rage over what he believes are false accusations. That’s a fine line to walk. Grant and Famuyiwa pull it off by approaching each character on his or her own terms, from Hill and Thomas to the often craven politicians who used the hearings to forward their political agendas.

It’s easy to cringe at the actions of Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear), who easily caved to Republican demands from his position as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, or Edward Kennedy (Treat Williams), who refrained from defending Hill against attacks from his fellow senators, but the movie clearly lays out their motivations and personal issues in dialogue and background details. (Biden is humorously nursing a toothache throughout the proceedings.) 

From the TV show Confirmation
Jeffrey Wright (left) and Kerry Washington. Photo by Frank Masi.

Jeffrey Wright ’87 brings his typical gravitas to the role of Charles Ogletree, a lawyer and Harvard professor who initially turned down Hill before eventually agreeing to represent her, and even he isn’t immune from making assumptions about his client, despite being firmly on her side. Confirmation is less about laying specific blame than about shedding light on the often petty and highly compromised political process. Nearly every character in the movie, including Hill, is deeply cynical about the hearings and the prospect of truth or justice prevailing.

At the same time, Grant, Famuyiwa and Washington make it clear that Hill has noble, honest intentions, and her composure in the face of nasty personal attacks is often remarkable. The movie makes ample (sometimes a bit excessive) use of real-life news footage, and it emphasizes the larger ramifications of the hearings. It closes not with updates on what Hill, Thomas or the various politicians have been doing in the years since the hearings, but with statistics about subsequent reports of sexual harassment and footage of women who were elected to Congress following Hill’s testimony. 

With a degree of distance that other HBO docudramas don’t always have, Confirmation looks back at a divisive, distasteful process and finds the social progress that emerged from the pain.

 About the author: Josh Bell ’02 is film editor of Las Vegas Weekly