‘Confirmation,’ HBO’s new Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill drama, is powerfully relevant today

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Kerry Washington playing Anita Hill during the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Frank Masi/HBO

HBO’s “Confirmation” doesn’t totally overcome the creative shortcomings that are common with biopics. But what it does very effectively is go behind the pageantry of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings.

“Confirmation” stars “Scandal’s” Kerry Washington, who also served as an executive producer, as law professor Anita Hill as she is pulled from her life of academia to testifying in the 1991 confirmation hearings of Thomas, who was nominated to the US Supreme Court by the George H.W. Bush. Hill claimed that while working as Thomas’ assistant at two government agencies, he sexually harassed her on several occasions.

As Thomas, Wendell Pierce tries to capture the nominee’s initial wide-eyed awe — he had only been a judge for 16 months before Bush announced his nomination to the Supreme Court. But when positioned to defend himself in front of the nation against Hill’s accusations, he delivered a speech in which he dropped a game-changing verbal assault, comparing the proceedings to a “high-tech lynching.”

“Confirmation” leans toward Hill, taking us past her strong, almost stoic testimony broadcast around the nation all those years ago. She didn’t even want to testify. Then-Senator Joe Biden — whose inept command of the hearings is played convincingly by Greg Kinnear — issued a subpoena to force her to appear. From there, the movie chronicles how Hill’s power is taken from her. She goes from telling her sordid story to having sordid stories told about her.

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Bill Irwin, left, and Wendell Pierce as Senator Danforth and Clarence Thomas, respectively. Frank Masi/HBO

Directed by Rick Famuyiwa (“Dope,” “Brown Sugar”), “Confirmation” dramatizes a truly American event with race, gender, media, law, and politics crossing all at once. Though set in the early ’90s, its themes feel absolutely current as the parties fight it out to fill the seat opened recently by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. And as Hillary Clinton strides once again for the presidency, while simultaneously managing sexist comments about what she’s wearing or how much she should smile. Or as women are still fighting for a work environment that doesn’t punish them for having a family and pays them equally to men.

Kerry Washington’s producing hand is most felt during the behind-the-scenes action, which feels very reminiscent of the style of her ABC drama “Scandal.” It even includes a portrayal of Judy Smith (Kristen Ariza), the political fixer who inspired “Scandal,” who was Bush’s deputy press secretary at the time. Yes, she was part of the team against Hill.

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From left, Dylan Baker, Greg Kinnear, and Treat Williams as Orrin Hatch, Joe Biden, and Ted Kennedy, respectively. Frank Masi/HBO

One team consisted of Biden and Ted Kennedy’s (Treat Williams) young female staffers (played by Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer and Zoe Lister-Jones) and Hill’s attorneys against the full might of the GOP and the Bush White House. The stakes were high. There’s no telling what a person could do to women’s rights from the bench if they were a misogynist. The battle sheds light on politicians and what they will do to keep their power.

This theme is best exemplified in an early (and very entertaining) scene just after Hill’s accusations became known and days away from Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination vote. A group of congresswomen storm male senators’ private lunch to lecture them on failing to investigate Hill’s claims. Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder sums up their behaviour perfectly: “So much power, so little leadership.”

Don’t come to “Confirmation’ looking for a great movie. It’s a good movie with a great look at the character of those who represent us.

Watch the “Confirmation” trailer below:

 “Confirmation” premieres Saturday, April 16 at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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