A "high-tech lynching," "Long Dong Silver" and a pubic hair on a soda can may not conjure up anything specific for a person under 30, but to Americans who vividly recall Justice Clarence Thomas' controversial Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the fall of 1991, they bring back memories of a scandal that forced the country to confront uncomfortable realities of race and sex, all amid a high-stakes, politically charged nomination fight.
The new HBO film "Confirmation" stars Wendell Pierce as Thomas and Kerry Washington as Anita Hill, the University of Oklahoma professor who -- reluctantly at first -- accused him of sexual harassment in sworn testimony. The movie seeks to give a fresh perspective on the salacious drama, which made both figures pariahs in certain circles and helped inspire 1992's "Year of the Woman," when numbers of females were elected to Congress.
"It became sort of a forgotten piece of our history," Rick Famuyiwa, the film's director, said at a panel discussion following the film's New York premiere on Thursday. A college student when the proceedings took place, he recalls being riveted and emotionally conflicted by seeing "two very credible black people on this stage on opposite sides of this important issue ... and this panel of all-white, old men sitting in judgment of them."
Twenty-five years later, he was stunned by the fact that so many younger people weren't familiar with Hill at all or the contentious circumstances that led to Thomas' narrow confirmation to the Supreme Court. According to Washington, there is a good reason why this story has perhaps been downplayed in the history books.
"So much of why it became forgotten is the country wanted to sweep it under the rug," she said during premiere's panel. "We don't know what to make of it, and yet we're still trying figure out how to have these important, nuanced conversations about gender, about race and about power."
Washington recalled that the Thomas-Hill dispute was one of the few instances when opinions clashed in her household. "I grew up in a house where we were regularly talking about progressive issues at the dinner table -- whether it was a woman’s right to choose or affirmative action or housing discrimination, everyone always had basically the same belief," she said. But when it came to Hill and Thomas, her parents split along gender lines.
"It was one of the first times that I think I became aware of my intersectionality in terms of race and gender," she said.
According to Washington, who also served as an executive producer on "Confirmation," when she told people that she would be playing Hill, she was sometimes met with the reaction of "She lost, right?" The actress believes this attitude misses the complexity of what took place and the evolution of thought it produced.
"One of the reasons we wanted to make the film was to kind of eradicate this idea of winners or losers," she said Thursday.
"Confirmation" quite deftly humanizes its protagonists. The film does not take a definitive side in the case. In fact, if the film has a villain, it would arguably be Vice President Joe Biden (played to perfection by Greg Kinnear), who served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time and managed to stymie Hill's defenders at nearly every turn.
Not unlike FX's critically acclaimed "The People vs. O.J. Simpson," the film applies 20-20 hindsight to a subject that was too obscured by sexism and sensationalism at the time to be fully comprehended. Viewers will come to understand that this dispute was arriving in the shadow of the bitter Robert Bork nomination fight (in which Democrats successfully defeated the Reagan nominee), that Hill was no ideologue and someone who had no desire for the limelight, and that some senators' own personal conduct problems (like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy) made them reticent to take on such a thorny topic. The film makes brilliant use of archival news footage to not only plunge audiences into a '90s-era headspace, but also capture the erratic tone of the media coverage at time, when loyalties shifted between Hill and Thomas from one day to the next.
When it comes to Thomas, who is known for his silence now more than anything else, the movie takes great pains to provide a portrait that isn't a caricature. "He's very much an enigma," Pierce said on the panel. "The Wire" actor admitted to having "preconceived notions" about Thomas before playing him, but he became fascinated with how similar their backgrounds are during his research for the role.
"I am curious to meet the man now," Pierce said, adding that he wants to figure out why their paths diverged so much politically.
The film also provides a striking look at how male and white the U.S. Senate was (a particularly powerful scene depicts Rep. Pat Schroeder and her female colleagues confronting male congressmen about their apathy regarding the Hill allegations) and how the process of lobbying for or against a potential Supreme Court nominee works.
At Thursday's panel, Washington said she was as stunned as anyone that her film would be debuting amid a new SCOTUS squabble over President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the bench. "You get the sense in the film that these people on Capitol Hill are accountable to someone. They may not be doing their jobs properly, but their job is to represent the American people," she said.
"That’s a really good reminder right now – that it’s your job to represent the American people and that you should do your job," she pointedly added.
Besides reflecting modern political drama, "Confirmation" is the latest in series of 1990s-era nostalgia projects. In addition to the many O.J. Simpson shows and films in the works, there's a Tonya Harding biopic on the way starring Margot Robbie. What makes these projects unique is that they are largely unburdened by spoilers or third-act problems. Most audiences already know what happened, so the filmmakers can put an emphasis on the "why" and "how." When it comes to the Anita Hill testimony and its fallout, the filmmakers felt like this was an important story to revisit, regardless of the timing.
"Obviously these issues still live, and I think what it tells us is that we always need to be engaged and questioning who we are as a country," said Famuyiwa, who said he was proud to have his daughters meet Hill in person at the premiere "so they could see the shoulders that they stand on."
According to Washington, the real-life Hill was "resistant" to meeting with her at first. When she did, she told the actress, "I just don’t know that I want to relive this all again." After having to recreate Hill's at times painful testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the "Scandal" star gained a new appreciation for what the law professor endured.
"I didn’t expect her courage to change me as much as it did," Washington said.
"Confirmation" debuts Saturday, April 16, at 8 p.m. EST on HBO.