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Rewatching ‘Confirmation,’ a Film Both Ahead of and Out of Step With 2018

The HBO drama about the 1991 Anita Hill hearing was released in 2016—before both the election and the advent of #MeToo. It offers some revealing and difficult insights about our current moment.

HBO/Ringer illustration

“At the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, I saw women have their lives ruined because they spoke out against the manager at a diner. What do you think would happen to me?” “Maybe someone is putting her up to this. There are a lot of groups out there that can’t stand the thought of you on the court.” “How would any member on this committee, any person in this room, any person in this country like sleaze said about him or her in this fashion?”

For obvious reasons, the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and the testimony of law professor Anita Hill stating that Thomas harassed her, feel depressingly recent. Bizarrely, Confirmation—the 2016 HBO movie about those hearings, from which the above quotes are taken—already feels light years away. At the time, Confirmation’s reception could be characterized as polite approval: Together, the combined efforts of director Rick Famuyiwa (Dope), screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), and star Kerry Washington earned positive-if-not-ecstatic reviews, a handful of Emmy nominations, and perfunctory credit for being “timely.” (Confirmation premiered in the closing months of the Obama administration, while Merrick Garland’s nomination was being ignored out of existence by Senate Republicans.) If only we knew. Now that we do, Confirmation registers upon revisit as something far more interesting and evocative than a historical moment’s dutiful retelling.

In 2018, more aspects of Confirmation’s story ring familiar than the mere presence of a Supreme Court fight. The final scene, in which Hill returns to an office full of letters expressing admiration and solidarity, anticipates #MeToo, the outpouring of frustration and vindication that’s followed The New York Times 2017 exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual abuse and harassment. The accounts about Thomas themselves, and their litigation in terrifyingly public fashion, recall those of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the California psychologist who says current nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her at a house party when they were both teenagers. (Ford has since been joined by Deborah Ramirez, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale, though there are no current plans for Ramirez to appear before the Senate.) Hovering over both is the presidency of Donald J. Trump, a man whose seeming confession to sexual assault was caught on tape, yet failed to prevent his ascension to the White House.

Rewatching Confirmation with an eye toward Ford’s approaching testimony Thursday is, frankly, grueling. Every time a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee (some of whom, like Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley, retain their positions to this day) demands to know why Hill didn’t report her harassment or why she only came forward in 1991 is a reminder of the callous, cruel treatment survivors like Hill and Ford inevitably receive, whether from the media at large or the presidential Twitter account. The chorus of friends and colleagues willing to swear Thomas couldn’t have done something because he didn’t do it to them recalls the similar vouching on Kavanaugh’s behalf. Fabricated diagnoses of “erotomania” and Exorcist plagiarism from Anita Hill’s era show that today’s doppelgänger theories aren’t the first time the GOP has resorted to absurd desperation in a fit of damage control.

As infuriating as the lack of progress they indicate might be, the parallels between Hill, Ford, Thomas, and Kavanaugh are expected. What’s not is the way Famuyiwa and Grant’s framing of the story already feels out of step with current thinking about the intersection between sexual politics and electoral ones.

Grant’s script takes care to emphasize, repeatedly, that Hill’s agenda in outlining her experiences in humiliating detail is not a political one. She’s come to Washington to raise an issue with Thomas on the basis of his personal character, not his jurisprudence, qualifications, or ideology. The implication is that an intimate abuse of power like sexual harassment is not just separate from, but above the petty push-pull of Capitol horse trading. Apart from a single headline about pro-choice protests, Confirmation declines to draw any parallels between Thomas’s personal misogyny and what liberals would characterize as the GOP’s institutional kind. It’s an understandable choice, given the riskiness of the analogy and the egregiousness of Hill’s accusations in their own right. Since the fall of 2016, however, Republicans have all but made the connection themselves. In the wake of the Access Hollywood tape, tolerance of sexual harassment has become a de facto plank of the party platform. Roy Moore enjoyed the backing of many in his party right up until the moment he lost; Kavanaugh’s defense is currently being orchestrated by Bill Shine, who was pushed out of Fox News as part of its larger harassment scandal. The subtext of Republican policies has become the text of their conduct.

In the days after Ford first outlined her account in The Washington Post, this stance has manifested in new, horrifying extremes. While Kavanaugh himself maintains a full denial, as Thomas and his allies once did, various public proxies have begun to advance a much darker defense: that attempted rape is not a serious enough offense to merit disqualification from a position with immense influence and power, not to mention one that may determine the fate of Roe v. Wade. “How much in society should any of us be held liable today when we lived a good life, an upstanding life by all accounts, and then something that maybe is an arguable issue took place in high school? Should that deny us chances later in life?” questioned former Bush official Ari Fleischer, displaying a representative line of thought.

Even Famuyiwa and Grant’s harsh indictment of Washington’s power structure doesn’t imagine a future where “sexual harassment and assault are wrong” has become a partisan issue. Still, the battle lines they do draw end up making a deeper, more enduring point, one that threatens to outlast the current dispute. The fundamental distinction that drives Confirmation isn’t between Democrats—who were in the majority and 11 of whom voted for Thomas—and Republicans. It’s between women and men who protect one another.

At the time of the Thomas hearings, there were only two women in the United States Senate, a demographic skew that made itself apparent in the skewed proceedings. (The two female senators were Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, and Nancy Landon Kassebaum, a Republican; Kassebaum would eventually vote to confirm.) Confirmation includes a cutesy yet pointed scene in which a posse of enraged congresswomen, led by Pat Schroeder, barnstorm the Senate cafeteria, a reenactment of a real-life confrontation; only after they strong-arm Senate Judiciary Committee chair Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear) does he even agree to give Hill’s accounts a dedicated hearing. Another vignette has Thomas’s most vocal champion, Senator Jack Danforth (Bill Irwin), convince Biden to let Thomas testify first by arguing, man to man, that Thomas deserves a chance to clear his name. Hill subsequently got a more obscure morning time slot; Thomas got prime time all to himself. It’s clear that Biden’s sympathies naturally gravitate toward Thomas, whom he sees far more of himself in than Hill. Last year, Biden finally conceded he owes Hill an apology; Hill, for the record, says she’s still waiting.

Confirmation makes some of its sharpest insights in its first 10 minutes. Hill’s initial point of contact with the Senate is Ricki Seidman (Grace Gummer), an aide to Ted Kennedy. Seidman then passes along her information to Biden deputy Carolyn Hart (Zoe Lister-Jones), because, in her words, “Kennedy can lead the charge on a lot of issues. Sexual impropriety isn’t one of them.” Hart still has her doubts: “Half of these guys have their own very shaky dynamics with women. They’re not gonna want this door opened.” Confirmation backtracks somewhat by allowing Kennedy to act the hero in its closing minutes, but the observation stands: Whatever differences these lawmakers may have on policy, they have far more in common as rich, powerful, straight white men, with the vested interests to match. And as women, Seidman and Hart can effect change only through said men. The irony of Anita Hill’s story coming to light thanks to the man forever associated with Chappaquiddick is both galling and tragic. In a world where Al Franken still has his vocal defenders on the left, the juxtaposition between liberal politics and personal tribalism still rings true.

Eventually, Hill stands down, recognizing that her testimony is falling on all-male ears. “I have said everything I want to say, but they don’t want to hear it,” she says to her supporters. “They don’t care. They want to win.” The prevailing sentiment both inside and outside the Senate curdled into disgust—not at Thomas’s possible behavior, but the fact that it was being discussed at all. (“Nobody is sure of anything except the whole process has been distasteful,” a real-life news anchor intones.) Everyone, Democrats included, wanted the ordeal to be over, and having given Hill her token hearing, Biden made sure it was. He even barred a second self-identified survivor willing to go public, Angela Wright (Jennifer Hudson), from testifying, consigning Wright’s experience to a historical footnote and squandering an opportunity to elevate the conversation around Thomas above a he-said, she-said debate.

This is the part of Confirmation that feels least plausible today. It’s no longer so easy to silence survivors by denying them a platform, nor can the American public plug its ears and hope the problem goes away now that the issues Hill gave a national spotlight have become part of the daily news. But visibility is not power. Confirmation captures the moment when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You can expose the wrongdoings of powerful men, but as long as other powerful men still control who suffers consequences and how, you’ll end up right back where you started.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.