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Apr 20 2016

Review: Confirmation

Kieran,here.Politics,even at their most abstract are ultimately personal.At its best moments,HBO'sConfirmationdirected by Rick Famuyiwa's (Dope) and written by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)understands this.Anita Hill's (Kerry Washington) 1991 allegations of sexual harassment against Justice Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce) on the eve of his confirmation to the US Supreme court is a subject about which few who can remember are indifferent.Who was lying and about what?What did the Anita Hill's testimony say about the positions of gender,race and political alignment in this country?These are the kinds of questions that evoke vociferous,often angry opinions and the film doesn't offer up easy answers.

The truth of whether Clarence Thomas sexually harassed Anita Hill is secondary.Thomas,as rendered by Pierce in what is actually a small role with few spoken lines,is a beleaguered public figure,forced to defend himself and deal with the consequences these allegations had on his personal and professional life.I say this not to imply that Thomas is innocent (I've always thought he was guilty).But,as is often the disgusting and sad truth about men who commit these crimes,they're not alwaystechnicallylying when they maintain their innocence under oath.In order for it to truly be a lie,these men would have to believe that they did anything wrong in the first place.Whatever mental gymnastics Clarence Thomas had to go through in order to get to this place,his own words and Pierce's subtle but precise performance clearly illustrate that Thomas does not believe he was guilty of any wrongdoing.When the film is examining the implications of a culture that allows men to make these leaps and how it turns victims into villains,it shines and Pierce is a key component of what makes this element works.He opts not to turn Thomas into a monster for it's not the "monsters"who violate women and irrevocably damage lives.They are simply people,a much truer and scarier fact to fathom.


They key role of Anita Hill allows Kerry Washington to be front-and-center in a role other than TVs "Scandal"possibly for the first time since her early indie breakthroughs ofLiftandOur Song.Washington,with her knack for portraying inner psychology and turmoil,does not disappoint.In moments that would normally allow for scenery chewing and awards clip actressing,Washington often pulls back.She seems to understand very fully exactly who Anita Hill was—an attorney,meticulous,level-headed and ultimately reluctant.It makes for a performance that while not always flashy or overtly expressive is consistently on-character and built from the inside out.One can only hope that this showcase leads to more opportunities for Washington,hopefully in sturdier and more confident films (more on this later).It should frankly engender shame and regret on behalf of Hollywood that they've had this actress in front of their eyes for well over a decade and have grossly misused or underused her talents.

As it is,Confirmationhas moments of real brilliance (Washington's performance and the cross-cutting during the scene where Hill is giving her detailed and painful testimony is handled well stylistically) that are hampered down by moments where Famuyiwa's direction becomes flat and rather toothless.Not that it's on every film,especially a film of this nature to make a strong visual directorial statement.  But there are sequences that feel wildly under directed.As a result,there are clear tiers of quality within the large ensemble as if Famuyiwa decided which actors he was most interested in directing and jettisoned the rest.Jeffrey Wright,Erika Christensen,Zoe Lister-Jones and Grace Gummer (yes,younger sister to the famous Mamie) all excel in supporting roles and bring interesting shading and texture to their scenes.Even Kimberly Elise,who barely has five minutes of screen time leaps forward (but then,when doesn't she?Get on that too,Hollywood).Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden is also strong and I'm glad that in this era of pre-mourning the loss of the Obama administration (and I'm right there myself) that the film doesn't absolve him of accountability for how he threw Anita Hill under the bus.Through this,the film successfully but not obtusely makes the point that mistreatment and dehumanization of Black women in America is not a GOP problem or a Democrat problem—it's everyone's problem.

The rest of the cast,I'm not so sure of.The team of men attempting to protect Clarence Thomas (or,more accurately what his confirmation would represent for George H.W.Bush's administration) feels like a bullpen of functionaries.Bill Irwin as John Danforth,usually quite strong as an actor,feels broadly drawn and unexplored in his villainy.I don't want to pick too hard on Jennifer Hudson,who plays Angela Wright,a potential witness and former employee of Clarence Thomas with accusations of her own.I like Jennifer Hudson as a personality and as maligned as her Oscar win is in certain circles,I maintain that the tone of herDreamgirlsperformance (even when not singing) actually suited the film well.That being said,I remain unconvinced about her as a dramatic actress.The line readings always feel a hair off—too earnest,too pronounced,not emotionally honest in terms of their response to a scene partner.A huge part of acting is reacting and she seems to stride into scenes,bursting with undeniable charisma,but already knowing how she's going to perform.It's a small role,but an important one that I wish had been cast more attentively.

The significance of the timing ofConfirmation,as we have a vacancy on the Supreme Court and a Congress fractured by petty obstructionism cannot be denied.It's an important film,thematically and speaks to many ideas of race,gender and intersectionality that are too rarely and too disingenuously discussed in this country.I just wish all of these things had been met with a cinematic statement as powerful as its material.

Grade: B-

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Reader Comments (14)

Great review.I am looking forward to seeing this for Kerry alone.But the topic is so current.

April 20,2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

"It Only Takes One Voice to Change History."Whenever I've seen that,I've thought "MAKE history"(as the first woman to accuse a Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment).Because Hill didn't change it,sadly: Thomas is a Supreme Court justice.

Does Pierce get to intone Thomas' infamous "lynching"analogy?

April 20,2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I just saw this last night and pretty much responded like you did.Washington and Pierce were great (although I think his role is larger than you're making it out to be) and some of the ensemble cast shines (Kinnear and both Wrights - Jeffrey and Alison),but the direction was often uninspired and relied way too much on real-life news reports.And what was up with Eric Stonestreet?I felt like I was looking at his wax replica from Maddame Trussaud's.

April 20,2016 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

For such a recent and well-known story,I expected some new information or angle.I was disappointed.

April 20,2016 | Unregistered CommenterBD

This review had me in such a fit of laughter,I can't decide if the last paragraph is the funniest or if it's that involuntarily hilarious line about the truth being secondary.

Or maybe I just had a really long day and I would laugh at anything.

April 20,2016 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

Carmen Sandiego -- I meant (and probably should have clarified) that the truth of whether Clarence Thomas sexually harassed Anita Hill is presented in the film as an idea secondary to how the process derails and disenfranchises the people making these accusations.I should have been clearer about that.

Not sure why the last paragraph is "funny"exactly,but I'm certainly open to hearing why you think so.

April 20,2016 | Unregistered CommenterKieran Scarlett

I thought it was pretty bad,myself.Maybe because the Hill/Thomas hearings were the politically galvanizing event of my youth,I expected more than an "and then this happened...and then THIS happened...and then THIS happened..."recounting of events.HBO usually does better with its historical flicks - Show Me a Hero was outstanding,and Game Change and Cinema Verite were very good (I'll leave out Behind the Candelabra since it was made for theatrical release).The upcoming All the Way looks terrific as well.

I do think the truth IS important in this case.The past 25 years have demonstrated that yes,indeed,Hill was telling the truth - numerous other women have come forward to state that Thomas harassed them,too,and much of her testimony - e.g.,that he discussed pornography at the office - has been corroborated.I was depressed that the film felt it had to be so even-handed,frankly.I didn't need to see Ginni Thomas tearing up while watching the hearings on tv,or Clarence planting flowers in his suit (!) in order to relax.

April 20,2016 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Can't believe Jennifer Hudson is still being hired for acting jobs.

April 20,2016 | Unregistered Commentersummerummer

I agree with you,Suzanne re: the Thomas clearly being guilty (at least in my mind).I do think the film erred to hard on the side of humanizing Thomas in those moments,despite liking Wendell Pierce's performance.

I also (a point I was hesitant to address in my review,but...here we go) resent the absence of Black women on a creative level.I know Kerry Washington served as executive producer,but it's directed by a black man,written by a white woman.Not that there's anything wrong with that,obviously,but it did lead to some blind spots.Like...the characterizations of the Grace Gummer character and how concerned she was for Anita Hill's well-being over her own professional goals.That rang really false to me and also does not line up with Hill's recounting of events.I feel like a black female screenwriter,at least co-writing with Susannah Grant,could have illustrated more clearly why Anita Hill was viewed as a "respectable"witness and Angela Wright was not and the politics involved in that conclusion.As it is in the film,it's very glossed over,but it was a huge part of the equation in real life.

April 20,2016 | Unregistered CommenterKieran Scarlett

Kieran - Thanks for the thoughtful review.

I haven't yet watched this,but I've been meaning to get to it.One of the reasons I've been wary is what @Suzanne has mentioned.This was a very contentious public hearing that seared an impression of Anita Hill (dignity under pressure) and Clarence Thomas (Guilty) into my brain.
To watch this is to relive that time and become angry all over again.

I'm sorry that this production errs on the side of being too even handed,because Clarence Thomas is a cynical man who took advantage of white guilt and sexists attitudes towards women to get his nomination through.Unfortunately,he then went on to become one of the worst Supreme Court Justices that the court has ever had.

On the plus side,it may inform younger viewers of these hearings and their importance.
Filling a Supreme Court vacancy makes a difference to peoples lives for decades.

April 20,2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

LadyEdith--well said.The fact that he is on the Court is an affront.

April 20,2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Kerry Washington was excellent in this film.Glad to see Grace Gummer in a decent role.Greg Kinnear made for a decent Joe Biden,who came off as not looking so well behind the scenes in Washington,DC.The film did bring me back to that time and place in the early 1990s.

April 20,2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

I had forgotten the exact details of Anita Hill's testimony.As gross and vile as the charges were I most remember Thomas's defense of a lynching of an uppity black man,which makes no sense under the facts of the case.No White Man brought the charge and Anita Hill was an intelligent Black woman,who reluctantly testified with nothing to gain.This deflection of attack and focus is a classic debate tactic which obviously worked.It is a tactic which is a permissible part of a defense lawyer's arsenal who is empowered to get his client off at any cost.However,it is a spurious and inappropriate tactic when used by a candidate for a life long appointment to the Supreme Court.

April 23,2016 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Larin

I just watched the film tonight and found this sharp,attentive,and precise review.Nice work.

May 5,2016 | Unregistered CommenterJ

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