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'Confirmation' screenwriter: only Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill 'know the truth'

Kerry Washington plays Anita Hill in HBO’s “Confirmation.” Credit Frank Masi/HBO
Kerry Washington plays Anita Hill in HBO’s “Confirmation.” Credit Frank Masi/HBO
Credit Frank Masi/HBO

When the HBO movie, "Confirmation," debuts on April 16th, it will revive a real life drama that had Americans riveted to their TV sets. No, it's not another retelling of the O.J. Simpson trial, although issues of race and the treatment of women do figure prominently in this case. It's the dramatic retelling of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for the then-federal judge Clarence Thomas.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush chose Thomas to replace legendary justice Thurgood Marshall, who had broken the color barrier on the high court. At first it seemed that Thomas was going to sail through the proceedings. But then a law professor named Anita Hill, who had worked for Thomas years before, came forward with accusations of sexual harassment.

"Confirmation" revisits the debate over what constitutes sexual harassment and whether, as Justice Thomas claimed, the televised Senate judiciary hearings — governed by 14 white male senators — were tantamount to a “high-tech lynching.”

The screenwriter and an executive producer of the film is Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich"). She tells The Frame's senior producer Oscar Garza that she and the other collaborators on the movie agreed early on that they would remain neutral about who was telling the truth: "We won't know. You may have your strong positions. You may say I fully believe this person. But you can't know."  

To get to the most "credible" version of the story, Grant did extensive research, "I read everything I could get my hands on," she says. And she interviewed many people who were involved: "Anita Hill spoke to me. A number of people who were working on the Judiciary Committee spoke to me ... I spoke to about 40 people."

Screenwriter and executive producer Susannah Grant and director Rick Famuyiwa on the set of HBO's
Screenwriter and executive producer Susannah Grant and director Rick Famuyiwa on the set of HBO's "Confirmation."
Credit: Frank Masi/HBO

Grant tells The Frame how she responded to objections made by certain Republican senators who were involved in the hearings, and how she found empathy for both Hill and Thomas, played by Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce. She also points out that one of President Bush's staffers who is depicted in the movie is Judy Smith. Coincidentally, she was the inspiration for Olivia Pope, the character played by Washington in the ABC drama, "Scandal."

Below are some highlights. To hear the full interview click the play button above.


Did you ever at some point have to put aside your own feelings about what you thought happened? Or what you believed to be true?

Immediately. A movie like this only works if it's credible, and that credibility depends on having as impartial a view as possible. And I also went into it truly believing that there are only two people who know what happened between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. You can guess, or you can say, all the evidence seems to point one way or another, but you can't know. You can't know for sure. And it was important for me as a dramatist to appreciate that early on. And I did.

On Thomas' "high-tech lynching" line.

It changed what people were talking about in the context of it completely. And that was an important line for me to understand as a writer. You know, you look at him sitting there and he was looking at 14 white men — a number of whom were, at that very moment, undergoing ethics investigations for financial improprieties, sexual improprieties, and nothing was going to happen to them.

A couple of months ago it was reported by Politico that two Republican senators who were very much involved in this — Alan Simpson of Wyoming and John Danforth of Missouri — saw an early script. And Simpson called it, "Unfair to everyone but Anita Hill." And John Danforth said it was full of errors and distortions. They had been sent the script? For feedback, for review? What were you looking for there?

Absolutely. Like I said, I want this movie to be as credible as possible. And we sent the script to people we thought would help us with that.

Did you hear from them directly or did they only talk to the press?

We did hear from them directly. And Senator Simpson's initial response was that it was fair, and then he thought a little bit more about it and changed his mind on that. And we looked at every single one of their objections and vetted them independently. And there were cases where they pointed out things that I had gotten wrong. And that was why we sent it to them. So, absolutely, we changed it. But there were things they pointed out that they remember one way, and intense research and serious vetting just does not support their point of view. So those things we did not change.

"Confirmation" debuts on HBO on April 16.

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