In 1991, a political drama mesmerized the nation. A law professor named Anita Hill had made a stunning accusation — that Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, had sexually harassed her when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The events that ensued are now the subject of the HBO film Confirmation, which premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. Kerry Washington, who you probably know best as Olivia Pope on Scandal, plays Hill, who was very reluctant to reveal this decade-old secret.
"In my experience, in a case like this, when someone comes forward, the victim tends to become the villain," Hill says in the film.
Viewers already know the ending to this story: Clarence Thomas is now a Supreme Court justice, and he famously defended himself by calling the Judiciary Committee proceedings a "high-tech lynching."
He said that "for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas," this was meant to deliver the message that "unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you."
Confirmation draws dialogue directly from the hearing transcripts.
"It's verbatim," Washington says. "Everything that happens in the hearings in the film is verbatim — which is shocking to some people, because you think you must have embellished that stuff. Nope."
On watching the hearings when she was a teenager
I was 14 when the hearings took place, and so a lot of my memories of the hearings are really through the perspectives of my parents. I really remember it, because I grew up in a house where we talked a lot about social issues and politics, and generally everybody was on the same page, whether we were talking about a woman's right to choose, or affirmative action, or whatever it was.
The hearings were one of the first moments when I remember them having a different point of view. My dad was very pulled in the direction, compassionately, towards this African-American man who was having his career and reputation destroyed by this panel of older white men and being attacked by a woman. And my mom was really pulled in the direction of this African-American, professional woman who was coming forward and being re-victimized.
On why she was drawn to the idea of playing Hill
I have spent five seasons now [on Scandal] playing someone who, for the most part, is the most powerful person in the room in Washington, D.C., and wields extraordinary access and power. And I think I wanted to explore the idea of someone in that very same environment who's on the different end of the spectrum, and who has to figure out how to hold her own in those spaces without having that power.
On feeling for all the characters in the story
One of my priorities and part of my passion in making the project was making sure we told a complicated, three-dimensional story where you did feel for all these characters. Because I grew up in a household where the people that I loved were able to step into the shoes of more than one of these characters at a time when none of us knew. We use the term "sexual harassment" now so freely and fluidly, but back then that was a vague legal term that people were not using. There was very little understanding even of what sexual harassment was.
On the all-male, all-white Judiciary Committee sitting in judgment of Hill — and also of Thomas
When you ask African-Americans how they felt about it at the time, a lot of people felt uncomfortable that these older white men were sitting in judgment of [Thomas] as well. There was a sense that this representational body didn't represent us as a country — there were no women up there, there were no younger representatives, there were no people of color. I think it was a real moment of reckoning for this country.
I think that's why the following year was "the year of the woman," where more women ran than ever before. The Senate Judiciary Committee had its first woman in the year following the hearings; the shape and face of our congressional body began to change because people became more aware.
On Thomas' characterization of the hearing as a "high-tech lynching"
It's such an extraordinary moment. And again, in my memories of people talking about the hearings, I remember them quoting that line — "the high-tech lynching" — and I remember that struggle of the women in the room.
It was my mom and my dad and a couple of the professors they were friends with — the women saying, "That's not what this is about." And the men saying, "Well, isn't it?" It's really the moment when he shifts the conversation, because there isn't a single senator who's willing to challenge when he claims being a victim of racism in that moment. It's so, so complicated. It's what I love about exploring the hearings.