A year after the bitterly controversial Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings riveted the nation, "Frontline," in its season premiere, performs a delicate balancing act with this probe into the racial rift at the core of those proceedings. Its findings are challenging, enlightening and, in the end, thoroughly disturbing.

A year after the bitterly controversial Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings riveted the nation, “Frontline,” in its season premiere, performs a delicate balancing act with this probe into the racial rift at the core of those proceedings. Its findings are challenging, enlightening and, in the end, thoroughly disturbing.

Like most of the country, Emmy Award-winning producer OfraBikel was utterly transfixed by the spectacle and drama surrounding the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill face-off last October. Her one-hour exploration into its ugly heart passes through fatty layers of political expediency and sexual stereotype, surface symptoms really, before diagnosing the chronic malignancy underneath: the polarizing dynamic of race.

Through interviews with black activists, ministers, journalists, students, lawyers and, particularly revealing, a close friend of the grandfather Thomas movingly invoked during the hearings, a complex portrait of the justice emerges as a man in conflict with himself, his blackness and his past.

Unlike Thurgood Marshall, whose seat he would inherit, Thomas was certainly no hero to the black community. Still, as a nominee–who happened to be black– to the highest court in the land, he stood as a symbol of what was possible, and , until the 11th-hour appearance of Anita Hill, that symbolism remained the administration’s hole card.

From the beginning, the Thomas nomination was bathed in racial cynicism. Both the president and his nominee were supremely confident that a Democrat-majoritypanel would handle the proceedings with rubber stamps held in lily-white kid gloves.

“The Democrats,” explains professor and activist Roger Wilkins, “didn’t know how to oppose a black guy.” And Thomas, we hear from his friend, counted on that.

What nobody counted on was Hill, the nerves she would touch and the explosion that would follow.

Bikel carefully and sensitively builds the case that Hill’s shocking revelations spoke more, in the end, to old shibboleths about race than sex, and how that played in the black community, something the media at the time largely ignored. Months later, the anger, confusion and humiliation in the voices of interviewees is still strong.

“What Anita Hill did was bring up the gender issue,” says author Paula Giddings. “And more than that, she brought up the issue of sex when it’s taboo in the black community. Black people were defined by being sexually different from whites in society. … That kind of difference got people lynched. That kind of difference got women raped.”

Patricia King, a law professor at Georgetown U., goes on to personalize the code of the community and the conflicting sentiments at work here: “It’s been drummed into us since birth, you don’t betray black men, and I think many people saw Anita Hill as a traitor. … (But) I’m glad she did.”

Within those observations lies the conundrum of the issues. This “Frontline” doesn’t solve them, but it is astute enough to buck the prevailing tide of political correctness in addressing them.

Frontline Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: Public Hearing, Private Pain

(Tues. (13), 9-10 p.m., PBS)

Production

Producer, Ofra Bikel; associate producer, Rachel Dretzin; director, Bikel.

Crew

Camera, Ilan Rosenberg; editor, Jay Freund; sound, Ken Hahn. (Complete credits were unavailable at press time.)

Cast

Narrator: Ofra Bikel.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more