Near the beginning of the HBO movie Confirmation, law professor Anita Hill—in a powerful, restrained performance from Kerry Washington—receives a phone call from an investigator asking if she had ever been a victim of sexual harassment or abuse at the hand of her former colleague Clarence Thomas, who was at the early stages of confirmation hearings to be the next Supreme Court justice.
“That’s not something I can talk about,” Hill says over the phone. “I’ll put it his way: If I were advising someone who was a victim of his unwanted advances, I don’t think I would suggest that she come forward. In my experience, in a case like this when someone comes forward, the victim tends to become the villain.”
Hill eventually does come forward, and is catapulted into the spotlight during those 1991 hearings, testifying about her experiences with Thomas in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and, by extension, the nation.
Her worst fears expressed in that phone call come true: She is subjected to character assassination, her claims are second-guessed by some and dismissed entirely by others, and disgusting and misogynistic rumors are planted about her in the press.
In one of the most brutal rounds of he said/she said in our nation’s history, set against the backdrop of one of the most contentious confirmation hearings, Hill is—for the simple crime of coming forward, for speaking up for herself—made the villain.
Twenty-five years later, Hill’s story is being told again with some uncanny timing.
Here we are at the dawn of another controversial confirmation for the Supreme Court. And here we are at a time when, for all the progress that’s made, a woman who comes forward still often faces an unfortunate knee-jerk reaction: disbelief.
“I think a lot of the issues that come up in the film—issues of gender, issues of race, issues of power and process in government—obviously those are conversations that we’re having that we need to be having,” Washington tells The Daily Beast before a recent screening of Confirmation in New York.
“We obviously had no idea when we were making the film that we would have another Supreme Court opening that we’re trying to fill in this country right now,” she continues. “But we did know that we still live in a nation where we’re desperately trying to have nuanced versions of these complicated conversations. They’re conversations that are important to be had. But it’s also so important to remember the history.”
That history is an infuriating one, and it’s hard not to watch it again in Confirmation without a mixture of outrage and nausea at how Hill was treated by an all-male judiciary committee, a press eager to turn her—an accomplished attorney and law professor—into a tawdry tabloid figure, and a culture that hadn’t yet begun to take workplace sexual harassment seriously.
Early in the film, a beleaguered Joe Biden (played by Greg Kinnear) learns of Hill’s accusations and asks, exasperated, “What if she’s lying?” A great deal of resources, in fact, were used in an attempt to prove just that.
In 1991, Hill testified that while Thomas was her supervisor at the Department of Education and, later, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), he sexually harassed her.
He’d routinely ask her out socially, and when she’d refuse, begin talking about pornography and depraved sexual fetishes—bestiality, rape porn—to her and in her earshot. He’d brag about his own sexual prowess. Most famous is the incident in which Thomas looked at a soda can on his desk and asked loudly, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”
Hill was branded a hypocrite and a liar, accused of overblowing the allegations because she had followed Thomas to a second job despite his behavior. (Her justification was that it was a great professional opportunity to work in the civil rights field and that his “sexual overtures” appeared to have ended by that point.)
While her name was dragged through the mud, Hill agreed to take a polygraph test and passed. Thomas declined, all the while vehemently denying all her claims. Four female witnesses were ready to corroborate Hill’s statements, but were never called to testify. (One, Angela Wright, is played by Jennifer Hudson in the film.)
Theories of erotomania—a delusion in which a person (typically a woman) thinks that someone (typically someone of a higher social status) is sexually attracted to them—were floated to discredit Hill. The fact that she remained cordial to Thomas over the years was used against her. Battle lines were firmly drawn as to who was telling the truth. Ultimately, Thomas was confirmed.
Asked what struck him the most profoundly about revisiting the hearings 25 years later, Wendell Pierce, who plays Thomas in Confirmation, tells The Daily Beast it was “how it wasn’t really a battle between the aisles, but a battle between the genders. That the women in Congress, the few who were in it at the time, made the men who were in that position hold their feet to the fire.”
It’s hard to watch how Hill was treated 25 years ago and not realize in horror that, to some degree, there are those who still treat women in similar situations with skepticism or, worse, don’t help. (Kesha is only the most high-profile, and most recent, example.)
“It’s the ugly part of human nature,” Pierce says. “It doesn’t go away. Doing a film like this lifts the veil so you want to make sure you’re aware of that part of human nature. That we’re ever vigilant to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The essential truth is that—and in part thanks to Hill—it is, as Washington says, “so much better” now for women who are abused and need to report it and have it addressed. Who need to be protected.
“I think it’s important to look back at the history and acknowledge how much progress we’ve made,” she says—but then cautions: “and then gauge how much work we still have to do.”
For a generation who may not remember, or even be aware of, Hill’s testimony and the cultural lightning rod she became during those confirmation hearings, the film is a loud reminder of what has become her quiet impact.
As the film enumerates in its closing credits, the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC doubled in the wake of the hearings. The number of women elected to Congress in the next election was the largest of any single election in the nation’s history—a byproduct, many pundits agree, of the backlash to the predominantly male Congress’s treatment of Hill.
President George H.W. Bush signed a civil rights bill to make it easier for women and minorities to sue for discrimination and harassment. The age of sexual harassment videos was introduced, which, mock them as you will, changed workplace culture dramatically.
As for Joe Biden, his crusade against sexual assault recently took him to the Academy Awards stage to introduce Lady Gaga and promote his “It’s On Us” initiative to combat sexual assault on college campuses.
“I think it’s a legacy of courage,” Washington says, savoring the opportunity to have Hill’s legacy made public to those who might have no idea who to thank for the protections that are in place now.
Plus, she says, at this point in our political climate the film drives home the importance of remembering that “our representatives, all those people on Capitol Hill, work for us and need to be held accountable.”
“I think Anita Hill is an American hero,” Pierce agrees. “Someone who was reluctantly pulled into the spotlight. And she dared to stay there and be honest, and tell what she believed to be truth. And it changed the course of how we live our lives.”
For director Rick Famuyiwa, the opportunity to to shine a spotlight on Anita Hill is a very personal one.
“I have two daughters,” he says, “and they have no idea what Anita’s coming forward, what that’s done for them. They live in this world where they have women like Anita Hill taking these stands and starting a conversation that benefitted them…For me, it was personal in that way. I wanted my two girls to see how much this woman did for them.”
There was one more thing that Washington was glad to honor about Anita Hill, and that made her very happy to bring to the forefront after 25 years of people having their own opinions about the woman and who she was: her love of a high-fashion shoe.
“I asked her: ‘Everyone always thinks of you as such an elegant person. Did you really think about beauty and fashion?’” Washington says. “She said, ‘Yeah. I read all the beauty magazines. And I really love slingbacks.’ So I made sure there were some in the movie for her.”