HBO’s upcoming film about the explosive 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has come under fire from those involved in the proceedings, who have accused the film of being riddled with inaccuracies and anti-Republican bias.
Confirmation, starring Kerry Washington (Scandal) as Anita Hill and Wendell Pierce (The Wire) as Thomas, premieres April 16 on the premium cable channel. The film will explore Thomas’ contentious confirmation hearings, where Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment while he was her boss at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. The allegation ignited a media firestorm and forever changed the way Americans defined and understood workplace harassment.
Confirmation follows in the tradition of HBO Films’ other politically-charged movies, including 2012’s Game Change, about 2008 GOP presidential candidate John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, and 2008’s Recount, about the aftermath of the Bush-Gore 2000 election.
But the timing of this latest film’s premiere — coming as it does just a few months before November’s presidential election — has led some of the attorneys and other figures involved in the 1991 Thomas hearings to accuse HBO of using the film to score political points.
“HBO made this movie in an election year to support Hillary Clinton and the Democrat Party, which loves to claim that a mythical ‘war on women’ is underway by Republicans,” Mark Paoletta, a Bush administration lawyer who was involved in the hearings, told the Hollywood Reporter.
Paoletta is hardly the only Republican with complaints about the film. Former Missouri Sen. John Danforth — who played a key role in aiding Thomas’ eventual confirmation — sent a memo to HBO blasting his portrayal in the film. In the memo, he called his depiction in the film “untrue” and “malicious,” and added: “If shown on television, it would greatly damage my reputation.”
According to THR, one of the biggest points of contention for critics of the film is its portrayal of Angela Wright, who had been set to testify that she too had been sexually harassed by Thomas before ultimately bowing out. Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson —who also played a key role in getting Thomas confirmed — told the outlet that, contrary to what is presented in the film, it was Democrats who forced Wright not to testify.
“HBO says Angela Wright is the great second coming who we wouldn’t allow to testify, but she was plenty flawed,” Simpson told THR. “Clarence fired her because she called a co-worker a ‘f—t.’ She wanted revenge. I thought, ‘bring her on. I’d love to cross-examine her.’ It was Democrats on Anita Hill’s side who didn’t want her. That’s the irony. Republicans were waiting with baited breath, and her people knew it.”
Simpson reportedly later wrote a scathing letter to the filmmakers, in which he defended Danforth and blasted the quality of the film.
“You really picked on and piled s—t on the wrong guy,” Simpson wrote. “Jack Danforth is one of the most prominent figures in American political life. “If the intent of your HBO film was not to defame, embarrass, belittle and ridicule him, you sure as hell did a beautiful job anyway.”
In statements of his own, HBO Films president Len Amato conceded that changes were made to the film after several people depicted in it voiced complaints, but the executive said that none of the changes were politically-motivated.
“We measure their input against the research we’ve done, and against our sourcing, and if we think someone makes a point that’s valid, we make an adjustment,” Amato told THR.
The film also reportedly contains a disclaimer at the end that reads: “This film is a fact-based dramatization. Some of the events and characters have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.”
For her part, actress Kerry Washington said last year that she was “terrified” of playing Hill, but added that the film was important and timely as issues of race and gender continue to dominate news headlines.
“It changed the global conversation and that is an outcome that we all felt was really important and we wanted to make sure that the conversation continues because some of those issues have evolved enormously,” Washington said then. “Yet some of the issues are still rearing their head, in terms of gender, in terms of race and how we understand those things. So I think really the outcome of what happened is that the conversation began and we want to make sure that that conversation continues.”
Confirmation is directed by Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) off of a script from Oscar nominee Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich). In addition to Pierce and Washington, the film also stars Jennifer Hudson, Erika Christensen, Eric Stonestreet, Greg Kinnear and Jeffrey Wright. It premieres April 16 on HBO.
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum.