This reflection was originally posted on April 26, 2016.
Confirmation came out nine days ago. Since then, my Facebook news feed, which should be tailor-made for dragging all of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas thinkpieces right to the top, has been silent about the movie.
I’m not shocked that another one-off HBO project that explores race as a major theme has flown under the radar—after all, it seems to be what HBO does best. It is not for lack of marketing, either—at least in NYC, a good number of phone booths have Kerry Washington’s face on the side, trying to drag in as many Scandal viewers as possible.
Consider, though, the weight of bringing Anita Hill front and center in these promotional materials. This story, when pitched in a vacuum and given a treatment by a major studio, would likely be a narrative with Wendell Pierce carrying the day. And yes, a good chunk of why we have Washington instead is due to her being the bigger name and the more marketable face. But at the same time, these promotional materials, as well as the casting of a much bigger name in Hill’s role than in Thomas’s, signals a shift in how this story is told and should be viewed.
As much as both sides of the story are given significant screen time and Thomas is treated in the script as a person with his own background, beliefs, motivations, and development, his story is clearly subordinated to the Hill-Ogletree duo and the political theater. The message is subtle enough that a casual viewer might miss it, but this is not Thomas’s story to be told: it is Hill’s, and while she might not understand the consequences of her stand when she commits to it, she is aware what her role is and what it may mean beyond herself.
(More specific spoilers from here on down.) At its core, this story is a useful illustration of the tension between two very broad and important deficiencies in our society: the reluctance to believe and credit a woman’s narrative, and the rush to deem guilty without sufficient process. While the overlap of these two issues tends to blur ideological lines and refuse to fit neatly into Democrat or Republican boxes (particularly on the issue of domestic violence prosecutions), the particular brand of warping one to fit the other on display here is instructive.
In a vacuum, Hill is the one on the attack. She believes that her word alone should be enough to ensure that, and truly, that should not be an unreasonable thing to ask. And yet, while she is not directly implicated by Thomas at the hearings, it is her reputation, her career, and her life that takes the practical hit from the events that follow. Ogletree hints at the concept of intersectionality (coined by Crenshaw just before these events) with a quip about how the proceedings might be different if Hill were white. While the public is quick to judge the moral failings of anybody, the blowback clearly cannot be explained by Hill’s race alone (and if you are skeptical about this, consider the different reactions if Thomas had been white but Hill were still Black).
Washington does an excellent job portraying the toll taken on Hill throughout the process. At the beginning, when she is talking with her friend about coming forward or not, she appears generally stress-free about it. Even after getting sucked into the hearings and meeting with Ogletree for the first time, she is defiant, pushing back wholeheartedly after his attempt to see how ready she is for the bright lights of the hearing room. As the political machinations start to reveal themselves, though, Hill starts to submit to self-doubt even as she stays publicly steadfast. The hearings are ultimately cut off as a somber Hill announces to her legal team that “this was a mistake” and, in one heartbreaking sentence, succumbs to the same self-doubt we have become so good at making women internalize: “You all have worked very hard—and if I am letting you down, I’m sorry.”
The movie closes, as I suspect it was virtually required to, on a positive note. Hill returns to Oklahoma clearly broken and defeated but soon finds herself drowning in thank-you notes from women empowered by her public stand. The credits observe the resulting uptick in successful female candidates in subsequent elections and filing of harassment complaints with the EEOC. A small silver lining, but a silver lining nonetheless. At the same time, Anita Hill’s fall onto the sword of a society begging her to do so has not somehow dissolved that way of life and entered us into an irreversible enlightenment. The EEOC statistic does not actually imply in any way that harassment has lessened; the only inference is that women are feeling more comfortable coming forward. Gaslighting is as prevalent today as it has been in the past; it simply has gotten more subtle (or sometimes not). The Year of the Woman ushered in a grand total of five women in 36 contested elections in the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which at the time of Hill’s hearings was made up of 14 men and 0 women, currently holds 18 men and 2 women (Feinstein and Klobuchar).
Late in the movie, Ted Kennedy has his own tiny coming-to-Jesus moment, with one of his young aides trying to appeal to the human element of what the Democrats’ weak-tea acceptance of Republican grandstanding has done to Hill. This scene is well executed, set up effectively, and flawed in two major ways. First, while I recognize that this is perhaps the proper tack to take in 1991 to convince your 59-year-old white male boss about the importance of standing up for women’s rights, it falls into the same soft-eyes tropes that do similar damage to otherwise excellent female characters in Game of Thrones (which I’m about to watch as soon as I finish this paragraph, if you ever want to hear 1700 words about the subtle sexism of that show…). Second, Ted gives his speech, his aide gives the slight nod of approval, and then we’re done. Ted did good, right? The only problem being, of course, that in real life his speech was not only ineffective in pumping the brakes on the character assassination but also actually failed to make a dent where it mattered, with Thomas getting confirmed 52-48 anyway. Changing minds is important, and changing minds of people with power is useful, but it can only be one of several things that must be done to move forward.
Making it Anita’s story is one step. It is not the first step, and it is nowhere near the last step.