At first, I shied away from watching “Confirmation,” the HBO docudrama about the 1991 Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings.
For the real thing, I remember being glued to the tube for a solid week, horrified and angry, and those feelings are still visceral.
But while the HBO version does dredge up some mighty depressing history, it’s worth watching: smartly made, well-written, with inspired casting and acting. Kerry Washington plays Anita Hill, an always-reluctant witness, unaccustomed to the bright lights, who, it turns out, could have used some Olivia Pope-style coaching, if it even existed then.
As Joe Biden, (who does not come off well) Greg Kinnear was given the Veep’s then-thinning crown and even got the Pennsylvania accent right.
Afterwards, I was outraged all over again.
From a modern vantage point, it demonstrates that this seemingly celestial body known as the Senate was actually made up of craven and compromised old white men, who closed ranks around the future Justice, mostly to end their own public embarrassment, fairness be damned.
Meanwhile, Hill was very publicly dismissed as a crazy bitch, a witch, and an hysterical stalker.
Where to begin with the ironies? Thomas played the race card for the first time in his life, brilliantly. His phrase of outrage, “high-tech lynching,” became part of U.S. history. With the help of this commanding, brilliantly aggrieved speech, his nomination was confirmed. Of course, he hasn’t spoken from the bench since.
And consider that Hill was called to testify by the man who acted as the feminist conscience for the Senate: Ted Kennedy.
Best of all, Anita Hill had been harassed while working with Thomas when he was director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, created to handle just such harassment complaints in the workplace. You can’t make this stuff up.
Remember, in that almost-innocent, pre-Kardashian age, before Internet porn became ubiquitous, Hill’s outrageous testimony, complete with Thomas’ mention of porn actor Long Dong Silver and talk of pubic hair, was not welcome in America’s living rooms. The contrast--her conservative demeanor and blue suit vs. what she had to testify about--was hard to process.
Yet most of the woman I knew at the time who had ever held a job believed her, because that sort of male attention--i.e, constant embarrassment and harassment under the guise of joshing-- was just how it was.
And the point is that now, 25 years later, there are legal sanctions in place to protect women from egregious behavior like this, right?
Well, not so fast.
The Erin Johnson vs. J. Walter Thompson case, a harassment suit filed against then-JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez just last March, eerily mirrors some of the same behaviors shown in “Confirmation.”
But imagine if Hill had had modern technology at her disposal. If she had been able to record Thomas on her smartphone, or had video from any of the meetings they attended together, would the hearings have come out differently?
NEWSFLASH: Johnson does have a video of Martinez making his first rape “joke” at a company meeting in Miami. The “smoking gun” was submitted as an amendment to the case shortly after it was filed, and the WPP side did their damnedest not to have it admitted as evidence.
Once it became clear that it existed, Martinez was caught in a lie, and stepped down as CEO.
In one of those life-is-stranger-than-fiction moments, the footage was posted last night on Vimeo.
Let’s go to the tape.
The reality is weirder than I expected. Martinez is very thin, jumpy and wired, with buzzy energy and a strange agenda. He speaks English with a thick accent and his own colloquial way of putting sentences together. As CEO, he seems very concerned about the “tricky characters” at the hotel (code word for black people) whom he thought had stolen some luggage.
In less than a minute of opening remarks, he gets right down to it: “I found such different and strange characters in the elevator… I thought there would be rape in the elevator, and not in a nice way.”
Some employees at the breakfast are heard laughing. Was it out of embarrassment? Corporate fealty? Or was it merely that they were used to hearing him talk this way, since he was known to complain about “fucking Jews” or dark-skinned “monkeys” at the airport?
Let us remember that when they returned to New York, Johnson tried counseling Martinez on his use of the word rape. The result was that he redoubled his efforts, making rape jokes in the office, saying stuff like, “Come with me to the bathroom. I want to rape you.”
Johnson tried to get the CEO sensitivity training, to no avail. She tried reporting him up the ladder. No response.
In the HBO drama, after the proceedings, Hill is shown slinking home to Oklahoma, despondent and broken.
But in a wonderful subsequent scene, she returns to her office, to a flood of mail from women all over the country, who were thanking her for speaking out, and giving them a voice. These were letter writers who had either suffered similar harassment silently, out of fear, and continued to work with their offenders. Or they had come forward to complain, and were humiliated, punished, and even fired for their actions. They told her she was their hero.
By contrast, there is no Hollywood wrap-up to Johnson’s case. The struggle in real life is pretty grueling. Johnson remains on administrative leave. There is a deadline of May 20 for the opposing attorneys to submit an answer or other response to the complaint.
The next stage in the case is discovery, where the parties exchange documents and conduct depositions. And blah and blah. No deal in sight—the WPP attorneys are going to the mats.
So far, WPP is arguing that he was just making the employees feel comfortable—and that English is his fifth language. How is it possible no one seems to be addressing the fact that Martinez felt comfortable using rape as a humorous subject? And that, to him, talk about raping women was a casual topic. And if he was like that in front of 60+ employees, you have to imagine he was even more comfortable talking about rape in private.
So who needs to revisit the bad old days of Anita Hill, when we can conjure up fresh female harassment examples, right here and now? Indeed, this is a sad case. And it’s no less depressing.