As President Obama pushes the Senate to hold a hearing on his choice for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, a new HBO movie, airing April 16, resurrects one of the most controversial of all confirmation battles, that of Justice Clarence Thomas.
On Thursday, Kerry Washington joined her real-life counterpart in the movie, Anita Hill, for a premiere screening on the Paramount lot. Thomas’s 1991 confirmation appeared to be sailing through the Senate, until Hill, a law professor, gave 11th hour testimony to the male-only Judiciary Committee alleging that the Supreme Court nominee had made unwanted advances and sexually graphic remarks when they previously worked together.
Thomas, played by Wendell Pierce, was confirmed, but the outrage over the hearings is what led the next year to the Year of the Woman, said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who attended the screenings. Four women were elected in 1992, including Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in California.
“If it wasn’t for Anita Hill, I would not have won my Senate race,” Boxer told Variety, adding that the Thomas-Hill confirmation battle will be featured in her memoirs, coming out in June. “We got elected by this woman’s courage.”
“To me, I think the overwhelming power of the film is just how much courage it took her to stick with it,” Boxer said. “The taunting, the way she was treated by my colleagues in the Senate. You are a woman scorned. What is that about? And her treatment was so terrible and it was brought out in the film.”
Boxer was in the House of Representatives in 1991, and was among a group of women lawmakers who are portrayed in the movie marching to the Senate and bursting into the Senate dining room to demand that the Judiciary Committee reopen the Thomas confirmation hearings to demand that they be reopened.
The movie does portray Thomas’s stirring remarks in which he lashed out at Hill’s sexual harassment allegations, as well as the humiliation of having them aired in marathon hearings televised on the broadcast networks. Thomas famously called it a “high tech lynching,” contending that he had become a target because he was a successful African American man who did not fall in line with a liberal agenda.
The movie has also reopened past dynamics over who was to be believed. Alan Simpson. who was a Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee at the time, already has criticized the movie as one sided in favor of Hill’s version of events, when there were doubts about her testimony and of the credibility of a potential other witness, who did not testify, with some similar allegations.
“Alan Simpson is living in a dream world where men ran everything,” Boxer said. “Wake up. You don’t run everything anymore. I am sorry [he is] sad. But women have a right to be heard…All she wanted to do was tell the truth. She had nothing to gain. She wanted nothing other than to protect the women of this country from predators like that.”
Vice President Joseph Biden, played by Greg Kinnear, was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee at the time. Boxer said that she writes in her memoirs that Biden “was being pressured on all sides to shut the thing down.”
“It was a miscarriage of justice,” she said.
As for today’s confirmation battle, Boxer says that it is “the opposite of the way that Thomas was treated… Now they won’t even hold a hearing.”