Credit should be given to director Ernest Dickerson and his cast for taking on a movie about a political sex scandal that, in terms of shock value, pales in comparison to bigger and nastier political scandals of late. But the Senate confirmation hearings on Clarence Thomas marked the first real public debate on sexual harassment in the workplace and continue to divide people on issues of gender and race. By offering a behind the scenes account of the 10 turbulent days in which Thomas was confirmed as the 106th Justice of the Supreme Court, Dickerson forgoes any real judgment of Thomas or his accuser Anita Hill and instead indicts the whole political process.
Based on the book by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, “Strange Justice” is a torrid account of the war between political parties and the take no prisoners mentality that drove the process of selling Clarence Thomas to the American public. Told mainly through the eyes of Ken Duberstein (Mandy Patinkin), a PR man hired by George Bush’s White House, the pic ultimately lumbers on a little too long after the curtain has been pulled back on the inner workings of Washington’s spin doctors.
“Strange Justice” is not an investigative journey like “All the President’s Men.” The film is pure drama fueled by the incendiary events that surrounded Thomas, the first conservative African American to be named Supreme Court Justice, and Hill, the law professor who accused him of sexual harassment. Both TNT and Fox passed on the project before Showtime resurrected it.
From the day Thomas (Delroy Lindo) is nominated, Duberstein orchestrates the sequence of events like a Broadway musical, muscling congressmen to support the nomination, spoon-feeding Thomas answers and manipulating media coverage.
Not too surprisingly, we learn that Thomas’ appointment was a shrewd move by then-President Bush to place “a friend” in the court knowing that Thomas, a black conservative, would be spared any real cross examination because of his race. The tactic almost worked until Hill (Taylor) came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct.
Far more revealing is that the movie implies that Thomas’ confirmation hearing was so puppeteered by the While House that Sen. Joseph Biden, head of the judiciary committee, would tip off Duberstein to breaks in the hearings so that his PR team could get to the media microphones first. It also was finagled that Hill’s testimony aired during a workday, while Thomas’ rebuttal aired in primetime. Most importantly, key witnesses who could back Hill’s claim were summarily dismissed before they could testify, and Thomas was sworn in by a narrow margin of 52 to 48.
Jacob Epstein’s script tries to be as impartial as possible, but eventually leans in favor of Hill. Epstein and Dickerson do manage to create a compelling case for both Thomas and Hill, who were forced into the center of an ugly grudge match between the parties. If Thomas was lynched, as he claimed in his testimony, so was Hill, but according to Epstein, it was the public that was truly burned.
The three main stars, Lindo, Patinkin and Taylor check in with powerful performances, although Lindo, as Thomas, is a lightening rod of emotion. It is a meaty role and Lindo, playing Thomas as self righteous and ambitious, sucks the marrow from it.
At times, Dickerson indulges in too many artful shots, lingering on milk swirling in coffee and turning Thomas’ and Hill’s testimony into near fantasy sequences. Still, his lens work is skillful and technical credits are above board.