HBO’s dramatic retelling of Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Justice Clarence Thomas at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991 doesn’t debut until Saturday, but conservative critics have already come out in full force to discredit it.
Although Kerry Washington, the film’s star and executive producer, has claimed that the goal of the film is not to declare “winners and losers” in their politically and racially charged clash, supporters of Thomas have criticized the television movie as an attempt to rewrite history to serve a liberal agenda.
“Anita Hill looks good, Clarence Thomas looks bad, and the rest of us look like bumbling idiots,” former Sen. Alan Simpson recently told The Hollywood Reporter.
In a separate interview, former Sen. Jack Danforth told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “The script that they sent me is just totally wrong. It’s a hybrid of fact and absolute make-believe.”
The most vociferous opponent of the film has been Mark Paoletta, an attorney and veteran of the George H. W. Bush White House who worked to shepherd Thomas’ nomination through the U.S. Senate. He considers the justice a “good friend.” Paoletta has been making the media rounds decrying “Confirmation” — although he has yet to see the finished film, he obtained what he believes to be a “late draft” of the screenplay — and he has even launched a website dedicated to debunking its assertions: confirmationbiased.com.
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“What I’m interested in is bringing out the facts that I don’t think are represented in this movie and then people can make their own decisions and they can look at my background and draw their own conclusions,” Paoletta told MSNBC on Friday. “This movie in my view leaves out a lot of the troubling testimony that showed that Anita Hill’s story didn’t add up.”
Among the issues Paoletta has raised is what he considers the film’s lack of emphasis on alleged inconsistencies in Hill’s testimony, as well as the fact that, despite her accusations of sexual harassment, she stayed in contact with Thomas and continued to work with him a second place of employment (The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)l He also claims it misrepresents how and when she shared her story with the Senate and FBI investigators, and what he calls its “ludicrous” portrayal of a second Thomas accuser, Angela Wright, who did not testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, for reasons which remain in dispute.
“I would say that [the film] is geared mostly towards primarily making Republicans look bad, including the senators that were involved, kind of mean and nasty,” he said.
Paoletta’s gripes with the project are reminiscent of the partisan rancor Hill’s testimony inspired 25 years ago. Today, with a female presidential candidate as a front-runner and a Supreme Court seat hanging in the balance, the debate over who was telling the truth — Hill or Thomas — is just as divisive in some circles as it was then.
According to Nina Totenberg, the reporter who broke the Anita Hill story to the public in the fall of ‘91, the movie isn’t that off base. ”The basics are true. It’s like all movies like this: it compresses events, and there are one or two scenes that I don’t think ever happened but it’s outside of the hearing room, and it’s pretty true,” she told NPR on April 13.
“In the movie [Anita Hill] comes out quite well and Clarence Thomas comes out quite well,” she added. “They each sound like they’re telling the truth.”
Where she agrees with Paoletta to some extent is on the film’s portrayal of the lawmakers who grilled them both. “The Republicans are vicious and the Democrats are hapless, and then-senator Joe Biden [who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee] is totally gutless,” she said.
Despite the controversy, HBO is sticking by its film. “We are very proud of our film ‘Confirmation.’ As with all of our historical dramas, we took enormous time in researching and vetting the production. Many of those in the film, and from all facets of the story, were a part of this process. We look forward to audiences seeing the film and coming to their own conclusions,” they told MSNBC in a statement on late on Thursday.
On the film’s website, the network highlights quotes from both Thomas and Hill, but it also includes a video entitled “Why Does Anita Hill Matter?” which links her allegations to a rise in national awareness of sexual harassment, a spike in reported cases of abuse and a historic showing for women in the 1992 congressional elections, including Carol Moseley Braun’s victory as the first black female U.S. senator.
The segment does concede that when Thomas’ hearings concluded, the public overwhelmingly believed his version of the events by a margin of 47 to 24 percent among registered voters, according to a NBC News/Wall St. Journal poll. (Some polls placed the margin wider at 60 percent to 20 percent.) But it also points out that just a year later, sympathies in that same survey swung back Hill’s way by a 44 to 34 percent margin.
“A lot of people initially were put off by her coming forward. It was hard to listen to what she said. It was gross,” Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, told The Baltimore Sun in 1994. “But that initial feeling of revulsion has passed. People now have thought about it and realized women don’t have to take this anymore.”
Other facts may have also swayed Americans to believe her: One of Hill’s most prominent antagonists, author David Brock, later retracted his attacks on her, and others have since come forward to corroborate elements of Hill’s account. In addition, Hill reportedly passed a polygraph test amid the hearings and a hagiographical documentary on Hill was released in 2014. Thomas’ very conservative bent and relative silence on the court has also infuriated many progressives.
As far as Paoletta is concerned, the HBO film and recent attempts to revive Hill’s allegations are part of a liberal tradition to “revisit historical things like this … on their own terms.”
“If you make Anita Hill more credible, then by those terms, Clarence Thomas is lying,” he said. Paoletta took up this effort in part to counter what he considers to be “flat out” lies, but also to exonerate a man that he feels was unjustly dragged through the mud in a public spectacle. “People talk about Robert Bork — that was nothing,” he added.
“I’m tired of my friend being smeared,” he said. “It hit me this time that I’m just sick of it.”