Sex hearings that divided America

Kerry Washington plays Anita Hill in TV movie about the lawyer's sexual-harassment accusations against a Supreme Court nominee

Confirmation recounts the hearings triggered by Anita Hill’s (played by Kerry Washington, above) allegations against her former boss.
Confirmation recounts the hearings triggered by Anita Hill’s (played by Kerry Washington, above) allegations against her former boss.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Telling the story of a hearing with an outcome that is already well known does not seem like an obvious recipe for gripping television.

But the critical success of the recent American Crime Story: The People V O.J. Simpson drama and Making A Murder docu-series demonstrates that audiences will lap it up if it is a compelling tale that sheds light on bigger social-justice issues.

The HBO movie Confirmation is the latest addition to this genre, revisiting the explosive sexual- harassment allegations made by law professor Anita Hill about her former boss, Judge Clarence Thomas, during the latter's Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.

Although Thomas' nomination was eventually approved and the 67-year-old still sits on the Supreme Court today, the actress who plays Hill in the film, Kerry Washington, says her testimony was a game-changer.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles, the Emmy- and Golden Globe- nominated actress says it raised awareness about sexual harassment as well as gender and racial discrimination, and that these topics are still relevant today.

"Some of the issues are still rearing their head in terms of gender and race and how we understand those things.

"So the outcome of what happened was that the conversation began - and we want to make sure that that conversation continues," says the 39-year-old, who also served as an executive producer on the new show.

The movie, which airs in Singapore on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) tomorrow at 11.10pm, shows Hill stoically facing aggressive questioning by Republican senators during the televised proceedings of the hearing.

Republicans in the Senate and White House wanted to discredit Hill because they were determined to put the deeply conservative Thomas (played by Wendell Pierce) on the Supreme Court as a replacement for retiring justice Thurgood Marshall.

Even though her testimony failed to stop Thomas from winning the lifelong appointment, the hearings sparked a vigorous nationwide debate about gender and racial discrimination as well as the under- representation of women in politics.

Washington, who headlines the ongoing TV series Scandal, was just 14 at the time, but vividly remembers how the hearings dominated the news in a way that nothing had before."It was one of the first times that we all stood still and began to partake in what we now think of as the 24-hour news cycle," she says.

Through her own family, she would experience how divisive the case was for many Americans - particularly in the black community, where Thomas had many detractors because of his right-wing rulings, even though he was then poised to replace Marshall as the only African American on the court.

One of the biggest sources of controversy was Thomas' suggestion that Hill's accusations were bolstered by stereotypes about black men and sex - even though the charges, in this case, came from a black woman and someone who, like Thomas, was a high-flying Yale-educated lawyer.

Washington hints that her mother Valerie, who was a professor, disagreed with her father Earl, a property broker, about whether to believe Hill or Thomas.

"My mother was an academic who had very passionate feelings about it as a woman of colour. My dad had very passionate feelings about it as a black man. And I was immersed in how complicated and complex the issues were from a very young age."

In the end, the Senate voted by 52 to 48 to approve Thomas' nomination, although this was the narrowest margin of approval for any Supreme Court justice.

Yet the issues raised made a difference - the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the United States' Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled after the hearings.

The number of women who ran for and won elected office also jumped - fuelled, some believe, by the disgust felt over how Hill was treated by Republican senators such as Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter, and inadequately defended by Democratic senators, including current United States Vice-President Joe Biden (played by Greg Kinnear in the film) and Edward Kennedy (Treat Williams).

That many Americans hold more progressive attitudes about sexual harassment today is a result of what Hill went through, Washington believes.

"I'm really inspired by the difference that a person can make in Washington and the kind of cultural shift that happened after the events that take place in our film.

"It's really inspiring to think about how much changed, how we were all transformed by these events in terms of our language changing around sexual-harassment and victims' rights, and how we think about the workplace, women, race and power."

However, Hill herself paid a steep price for coming forward and was subjected not only to "victim- blaming" insinuations, but also a scurrilous smear campaign that damaged her personally and professionally, despite her sterling reputation and the fact that she had passed a polygraph test over her claims.

The academic is now 59 and a professor of law and women's studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

"I have met her and she is very private," says Washington.

The actress reveals that the pair instantly connected over their mutual appreciation of the pitfalls of being in the public eye, Washington having occasionally been the target of tabloid rumours about the state of her own marriage to 34-year-old football player Nnamdi Asomugha, with whom she has a two-year-old daughter.

"That was something that she and I really shared: the circumstances of your personal life being thrust into the public eye when it's not really your choice."

Hill, who at the time was praised for her unflappable demeanour in the face of hostile and demeaning questioning, also offers up a lesson or two about handling such situations with dignity.

"I wish that I had the level of elegance and grace that I think Anita had," Washington says. "I just keep trying to learn to live a public life and still have some private space."

• Confirmation premieres in Singapore on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) tomorrow at 11.10pm. It will also be available on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602) till next year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'Sex hearings that divided America'. Subscribe