"Confirmation," HBO's docudrama about the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas clash of 1991, arrives Saturday with a strong cast (Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce) – and great timing, in the political and pop cultural realms.
The movie about the fight over Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court lands as President Obama's current nominee, Merrick Garland, struggles to even get a Senate hearing. "Confirmation" also comes after "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson" raised the bar for – and perhaps audience interest in – depictions of real-life, televised, nation-gripping dramas. Meanwhile, Thomas recently made news by asking questions from the bench for the first time in a decade.
"Confirmation" serves as a reminder that Thomas' voice resounded most when he decried being subject to a "high-tech lynching" as he faced damaging sexual harassment allegations from Hill, a former underling. The law professor became a controversial figure herself: Supporters heard a brave voice exposing rampant workplace sexism, while detractors alternately saw her as an opportunist and political pawn.
The searing conflict will play out on television again Saturday, this time with the benefit of distance – though it's unclear whether "Confirmation" will change the minds of those who closely followed the saga a quarter-century ago.
The Hill-Thomas Senate showdown, in some ways, proved a ready-for-cable successor to the 1987 political dramas wrung from the Iran-Contra Hearings and President Reagan's unsuccessful bid to put conservative jurist Robert Bork on the nation's highest court.
The Bork nomination, which presaged the current partisan fight over Garland, unraveled directly over ideology, with the charge led by then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Joe Biden. Thomas' conservative credentials also subjected him to scrutiny as President George H.W. Bush vied to make him the high court's second African-American justice, replacing the groundbreaking Thurgood Marshall.
But Hill's accusations transformed Thomas' confirmation hearings into a he-said-she-said soap opera, mixing the specters of race and sexism with sordid references to a can of soda and a once-obscure male porn actor with unforgettable (and unprintable) screen name.
In the years since he squeaked through the full Senate by four votes, Thomas has let his conservative voting record do most of his talking. Now "Confirmation" bodes to speak to the 1991 political and social climate – as well as to our current times as Hillary Clinton, a polarizing figure herself, appears poised to become the first woman to head a major U.S. political party's presidential ticket.
Even before it airs, "Confirmation" is spurring a split verdict. Politico reported in February that some political players involved with the hearings pointed to inaccuracies in a draft script. Hill recently told "Today" co-host Savannah Guthrie: "It's important for us I think to relive the story and continue to learn the lessons from it."
It's too much to ask a two-hour TV movie to render a final judgment on a moment in history whose influence reverberates today. "Confirmation" hopefully will re-open some tough conversations – and go beyond confirming long-held perceptions on both sides of a long-festering divide.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.