HBO is dredging up those sordid memories in film called "Confirmation," which is set in D.C. (naturally) but shot in Atlanta. It debuts on Saturday at 8 p.m.
Sharp-eyed Atlantans will see the steps and interior of Atlanta City Hall masquerading as the Russell Senate building, where the confirmation hearings were held. When Anita Hill (played by "Scandal" star Kerry Washington) is shepherded in and out of the airport, it's the outside of the Georgia World Congress Center, which has masqueraded as an airport numerous times before in other films. The Candler Building in downtown Atlanta is used as the site for Hill's strategy sessions.
Wendell Pierce, who played Thomas, came to a screening at the Rialto earlier this month for the Atlanta Film Festival and admitted he had preconceived notions about the man. "It was a challenge," he said on the red carpet. "He was an enigma. We know him as a public figure, not as a personal figure."
He said he wanted to work with Washington, although the two characters barely cross paths in the film. (There are no flashbacks to what may or may not have happened a decade earlier regarding alleged sexual harassment when Hill and Thomas worked together.)
"Before I started filming my testimony, I watched her testimony just as acting exercise," Pierce said. "She fueled my testimony. Like the judge, he had to watch the accusations being laid out and played out in front of the public about him and his character and his dignity. That had a profound effect on him so it had a profound effect on me."
"When I stepped up to mic to do my testimony" as Thomas, Pierce said, "I actually didn't meet any cast members until after I did mine. To watch Kerry for a few days play the role was... like doing a scene with her."
I noted that the most dramatic moment in the film is Pierce as Thomas accusing the Senators of a "high-tech lynching" of a black man. He said this was a circus to put "uppity blacks" in their place. Pulling the race card before an all-white male committee cowered them to a degree.
Here's a clip of the original testimony in 1991:
"It was an iconic moment that I remember personally," Pierce said. "It has become an iconic moment in American history. I watched the testimony as carefully as I could so I could replicate it as close as I could. It just reminded me of how pivotal it was. That moment where he takes breath and almost doesn't say it. He sits back and then chooses to lay it on the line."
He said it was a seminal moment. "He shifted the focus of the media. He shifted the direction of what the Senators were doing. He shifted the direction of his legal challenge." Thomas was confirmed 52-48 a few days later.
The film uses ample amounts of vintage media reports of anchors from CNN and other networks interspersed with scenes of the backroom mechanisms that led Hill to the hearing in the first place. (Hill did not seek out the attention but once the realization sunk in that Thomas was about to become a justice, she decided it was worth airing out despite the awareness it could hurt her career and reputation.)
While Thomas would probably prefer this episode be buried permanently into the past and not dredged up again for entertainment purposes, Pierce and the scriptwriters went out of their way to make him more empathetic. While he is hardly a warm and fuzzy human being in the movie, Thomas as played by Pierce is serious, determined and prickly about being unfairly attacked.
"The only reason we do art is so we can collectively sit down and reflect on who we are, where we failed, where we triumphed, who we hope to become, declare what our values and act on them," Pierce said. "I hope people see the portrayal of Thomas and see the humanity and consider that in their variable whether or not they believe him or how they perceive him. I hope they see more of his humanity."
The case may have left everyone on both sides feeling icky, but it opened the conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace. "That's the only reason we did the film," Pierce said. "No companies at the time had strong HR departments like they do now regarding sexual harassment. We all have to go through sexual harassment seminars in companies because of those confirmation hearings. And the influx of women who joined Congress after that. It's a pivotal, milestone moment."
"Confirmation," 8 p.m. Saturday, April 16, HBO