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‘Confirmation’ Reignites Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Debate

HBO Confirmation
Frank Masi/courtesy of HBO

HBO’s “Confirmation,” which debuts on Saturday, is reigniting debate from some of the real-life principals who were involved in a sensational chapter in the Senate’s history 25 years ago: the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings.

The movie starring Kerry Washington depicts the 1991 confirmation battle as Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination was put in doubt after law professor Anita Hill, a former co-worker, gave testimony that accused him of sexual harassment. Thomas delivered a vehement rebuttal, famously calling the spectacle a “high tech lynching,” while the hearings captivated television audiences.

One of the most outspoken figures about HBO’s project has been Mark Paoletta, a Washington attorney who served in the White House counsel’s office at the time. He created a website called Confirmationbiased.com, which launched on Thursday and characterizes the movie as  an “unfair distortion of the truth” that features “imaginary scenes, fictional characters and a biased agenda” and ignores contradictions in Hill’s testimony.

The site features documents from that time, video of the hearings and even its own specially produced video, and Paoletta plans to feature a minute by minute fact check of the movie as it airs on Saturday. It also totals the contributions that some of the principles from the movie have made to Democrats.

“I am sick of the lies and distortions over the past 25 years about these hearings, and this is my effort to begin to remind the American people why they believed Clarence Thomas 2-1 at the end of those hears,” Paoletta said. “This is HBO’s effort to rewrite history.”

HBO strongly defends its project. Len Amato, president of HBO Films, said that he had seen the website, calling it “absurd” and “filled with half-truths and information that is taken out of context.” He pointed to HBO’s own website for the movie, which has a link to the full testimony and and visual record, and where viewers can see the full record.

Sen. Alan Simpson, the ranking Republican member of the Judiciary Committee at the time, and Sen. John Danforth, who aided Thomas during the hearings, have spoken out against the movie.

Paoletta has not seen the film, but started raised objections after reading a script from last summer.

Of particular criticism is the way that the movie depicts Angela Wright, played in the movie by Jennifer Hudson, who was supposed to testify with further allegations against Thomas, but never did.

In an op-ed earlier this month in the Washington Examiner, Paoletta argued that HBO was trying to “bolster her credibility” even though Thomas dismissed her for referring to a colleague as a “faggot.” He also contends that the movie depicts her testimony as being prevented from testifying before an all-male committee when in fact she chose not to, as her “credibility would have been shredded.” His site links to a letter from then-Senate Judiciary Chairman Joseph Biden to Wright and her attorney in which she declines to testify but says that it is “completely satisfactory” to enter an interview into the record.

“That the producers of ‘Confirmation’ would lionize a woman who was fired for making a homophobic slur is troubling, and shows you what Hollywood will do when it values sensation over truth,” he wrote.

Amato said that there were a lot of opinions about Wright, but “I think the most important point is that she was subpoenaed. It was not Angela Wright’s choice to testify.

“All [the committee] had to do was call her to testify. They chose not to do that,” he said. The movie portrays Biden, prodded by Republican members of the committee and under pressure to shut down the hearings, ultimately deciding not to call her. On her lawyer’s advice, she has little choice but to sign the letter even though she is waiting to appear.

The movie shows Wright reacting with surprise when Thomas says he fired her for the homophobic slur, calling it a lie. Amato says that the slur was “a charge that is thrown out there and there is contradictory evidence.”

Amato also said that Wright had a corroborating witness, but “nobody would ever know this because she was not called to testify.”

He said that “a lot of these distorted comments go back to an early script in progress,” but that it evolved over time. He defended the movie’s research, saying that they “are always going after an essential truth, and it has to align with the research that we do. So that is why our process is open and transparent.”

“People who think it is a political hit piece don’t understand how movies work, because you really can’t predict whether or not a script is going to come together, whether or not talent is going to come together, whether or not the economics of it are going to come together, whether or not it can be scheduled,” he said. “There is no reality to trying to be able to plan a film for an agenda.”

The controversy over the movie, Amato said, is not unexpected.

“If people were upset then, it is not a surprise that they are upset about it now,” he said, adding that it will be up to viewers to “see the film as a film and see where it leads them.”

Paoletta said that he was “happy to debate Len Amato any day about the facts of those hearings.”

Where there is probably some agreement is in the timing of the movie, just as there is another Supreme Court vacancy. The debate over President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, is much different, as it is focusing on whether he should get a confirmation hearing at all.