Frank Masi/HBO
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April 15, 2016
In The Mix

Courting Courage

A writer reconstructs the 1991 face-off between would-be Justice Clarence Thomas and law professor Anita Hill.

Graham Flashner

Susannah Grant has always been a champion of strong women, especially those who shine a light on social injustice.

So it was only natural that the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Erin Brockovich would take a keen interest in Anita Hill, the law professor whose allegations of sexual harassment against her former boss, Clarence Thomas, threatened to derail his Supreme Court confirmation.

The result is the HBO film Confirmation, premiering in April, written by Grant and starring Kerry Washington (Scandal) as Hill and Wendell Pierce (The Wire) as Thomas.

"I'm always drawn to people whose voices aren't heard widely enough," Grant says, "and a lot of them happen to be women."

The nationally televised hearings riveted the nation for three days in October 1991 and are widely credited with raising national awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. Grant's interest in Hill was piqued three years ago by a documentary she saw at the Sundance Film Festival, Freida Lee Mock's Anita.

"I became so curious about what happened when the cameras weren't rolling," she recalls. "Anyone of a certain age who'd watched the hearing was gripped. I wanted to know how on earth this could've happened."

Filmed in Atlanta and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, Confirmation presents views of both sides: Hill, the poised witness facing down a skeptical Capitol Hill, and Thomas, the conservative appointee of President George H.W. Bush, vigorously denying the charges and famously putting the all-white Senate judiciary committee on the defensive when he denounced the hearing as a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

"The telling of this story has become so reductive," Grant observes. "People boil it down to who's lying, who won, who lost. But it was so much more complicated. If you don't pick a side, the story becomes much more nuanced." Grant — whose many feature credits include The Soloist, Ever After and 28 Days — was just entering the film business in 1991.

"A lot of the things Anita talked about really resonated," she recalls. "I had friends on Capitol Hill whose workplace stories were shocking at the time." To reconstruct the events, she drew from two books, Capitol Games by Timothy M. Phelps and Helen Winternitz and Strange Justice by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, as well as tomes by Hill, Thomas and Senator John Danforth.

The film has a prominent supporting cast, led by Greg Kinnear as Senator Joseph Biden (who presided over the hearings), Jeffrey Wright as Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree (Hill's lead attorney), and Jennifer Hudson as Angela Wright, a witness for Hill who was blocked from testifying.

Also appearing are Treat Williams as Senator Edward Kennedy, Alison Wright as Thomas's wife Ginni, and Eric Stonestreet as lobbyist Ken Duberstein. Groundswell Productions produced in association with ABC Signature Studios, with Grant, Washington, Michael London and Janice Williams as executive producers.

Twenty-five years later, Grant finds the repercussions from the Hill-Thomas story every bit as relevant. "There's sexual assault on campus and in the military, online trolling.... The awareness is there, the dialogue is there, but the problem is there as well. It takes more than one generation to fix the things that are broken."

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