HBO’s Kerry Washington movie, Confirmation, re-examines the events of 25 years ago, when Anita Hill spent three nauseating days providing testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee recounting the sexual harassment she endured from her boss at the EEOC, Clarence Thomas. Before the movie had even aired, it had sparked conservative backlash, while liberals have also been criticizing the film because it didn’t go far enough to illustrate that Anita Hill was telling the truth.
The movie does a competent (if dispassionate) job of retelling those three days in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it successfully depicts the Republican Senators as callous and the Democratic Senators as gutless men who hung Anita Hill out to dry. What it doesn’t do is come right out and tell us who was telling the truth. Indeed, while the Senate Judiciary Committee comes out of the movie looking like hapless villains, Hill and Thomas are both ultimately depicted favorably.
Of course, that’s not fair to the character who wasn’t was lying, but HBO’s movie didn’t seem as interested in getting at the truth as much as it was interested in relaying the importance of those hearings, and they were important. The hearings raised awareness around the issue of sexual harassment, and despite the public crucification of Anita Hill during those Senate hearing, sexual harassment claims soared exponentially in the subsequent years. The hearings started a nationwide conversation about sexual harassment, companies began instituting sexual harassment policies, and a large number of women were voted into the Senate the very next year, thanks in large part to Anita Hill and what many felt was the unfair treatment she received during the hearings (Carol Moseley Braun, the first and only female African-American Senator to date, was elected in 1993).
However, during the Senate hearings, the public was not in Hill’s favor. By a 2-1 margin, Americans believed Clarence Thomas over Hill, thanks to his convincing indigence and a line that resonated with much of the public: “As far as I’m concerned, [this] is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”
Nevertheless, within a year of the hearings, public opinion had completely reversed, and most people believed Anita Hill. That’s the way it should have been, because there is very little doubt that Hill was telling the truth.
In fact, what most people didn’t realize before the movie was that Angela Wright, who also experienced similar sexual harassment from Clarence Thomas, was waiting to testify and corroborate Anita Hill’s story. However, after waiting three days, she was dismissed by the Senate, because the gutless Democrats didn’t want to call her. They were in a tenuous political situation. One of the Democratic Senators, Ted Kennedy, didn’t want to highlight his own bad history with women, and the Democrats also didn’t want to be seen as blocking the confirmation of a black Supreme Court justice. It was a rare moment where a large part of the African-American community aligned with Republicans to put pressure on Democrats to confirm Thomas.
That doesn’t mean it was fair and there’s plenty of other evidence to erase any ambiguity. For instance, three of Anita Hill’s close friends — testifying under oath — corroborated her story about Clarence Thomas asking her out between the years of 1981 and 83, and that he refused to take no for an answer. Moreover, an aide to Thomas at the EEOC wrote a letter suggesting that black employees in the organization were “an object of special interest” to Thomas, who “inspected” and “auditioned” them.
Additionally, in Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer’s book, Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, they interviewed male and female friends and colleagues of Clarence Thomas and learned that Thomas’ history of behavior was consistent with Anita Hill’s allegations. The Senate Judiciary Committee could have learned this themselves if they had had any real interest in investigation Hill’s sexual harassment claims. Joe Biden, however, didn’t think it was fair to delay the hearings any longer in order to launch a proper investigation.
In fact, the only credible defense of Clarence Thomas to come out after the hearings was a book by David Brock, The Real Anita Hill, which has since been recanted by the author himself, who admitted that he was paid to do the bidding of right-wing Republicans.
In other words, no matter what impression the HBO movie Confirmation leaves you with, there’s no ambiguity here. Clarence Thomas sexually harassed Anita Hill and it should have kept him from a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.