If you were asked to recall a 90s political scandal most of us would mutter the names Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. But another more prominent, more pivotal one in American culture took place much earlier which transformed workplace equality and gender politics.
It was 1991 when Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first African-American judge announced his retirement. Seeking a smooth transition, President George H.W. Bush nominated another African-American, Judge Clarence Thomas, to fill the open seat but it did little to oppress the opposition. In the final days of his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the press released a story that one of Thomas’s former employees, Anita Hill, had accused him of sexual harassment ten years earlier. The fallout of these allegations prompted a chain of events that had both Thomas and Hill testifying in front of the committee before a nationally televised audience.
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa and penned by Susannah Grant, the retelling of this sober account is beyond timely. It vaunts powerful performances by Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce as the leads with great insight to how clueless white male senators can be in determining one’s professional fate. Both Thomas and Hill are subjected to ridicule and character assignation during the hearings in which neither backs down from their position – making it difficult to justify who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s telling the truth and who’s lying.
Cinematographer Rachel Morrison lensed the HBO feature alongside Famuyiwa – the two coming off the success of Dope – with meticulous precision during the location-heavy production. Filming in Atlanta, Georgia the two looked to practical sets first to add validity to the visual story. “We knew going in the caucus room was going to be a massive build. There was no way around it. It’s a space that everyone remembers,” Morrison notes. “So as much as possible we wanted everything else to be on location for the authenticity and depth that the windows provided. It was a little bit tricky because Atlanta looks nothing like D.C., but we took a few liberties like having the senate offices a little greener outside than they might be otherwise. I think it was worth it for a movie that had so many offices, hallways and courtrooms. Had it been all on set, you’d feel so closed in.”
When we first meet Hill, we learn she’s a modest law professor at the University Of Oklahoma with no political aims at Thomas. It isn’t until Ricki Seidman (Grace Gummer), a Ted Kennedy aide, who calls Hill at her home to see if the allegations are true. Even then she’s reluctant to tell her story and does so if Seidman promises to only share it with the Judiciary Committee. Unfortunately it’s leaked and the resulting political circus forces Thomas to salvage his nomination and defend the claims against him as being fabricated.
As the story progresses the visual arcs of Hill and Thomas change too. “When Anita is in Oklahoma, we see much warmer earthy grounded tones. But from the moment she gets that first phone call and gives consent to share her story the world is closing around her. The world as she knows it is over and her private life becomes available for mass consumption,” Morrison says. “By the time she arrives in D.C. everything is visually much colder.”
It wasn’t just individual tonal changes that were looked at but how Hill and Thomas were both being treated in front of the committee. “I think one of the things we were more interested in was what they had in common – they were both dressed into this spectacle for everyone to witness. We were less looking to emphasize the difference between them but show more the difference between them and the committee, says the cinematographer.”
While color, contrast, and lighting hinted story points to the audience, Morrison dove deeper into the visual storytelling with her choice of glass. “Both Anita and Clarence similarly experienced a narrowing to their character – neither of their names or personas would be without this new meaning that was being attached to them. So in terms of composition we looked to short side both of them,” Morrison says. “So from the moment they’re under the microscope we shot their through lines anamorphic, cropping 16×9 and shot spherical for everyone else.”
In doing so the anamorphic frame provided a subconscious stream of claustrophobia during on screen moments with Hill and Thomas. This contrasted to the politicians who were given normal lead space and more room to move in frame. “In the caucus room there’s a whole bunch of white senators weighing in on a black man’s and a black woman’s personal life. It felt so invasive. So we looked to composition, contrast and lighting to reflect both what if feels like to be minimalized and to be in the spotlight. Adding the subconscious anamorphic layer I think worked really well.”
The narrative is packed with subtle visual punches that are as captivating as Hill’s testimony – one of them being when she arrives at the hearings with her lawyer Charles Ogletree (Jeffrey Wright). With the press hovering like vultures and nowhere to go Ogletree asks an aide if there’s anywhere private to wait. They’re eventually placed in an absolute dismal room with only a few filing cabinets and a single chair. “That scene really illustrated what she was up against,” says Morrison. “They weren’t greeted with any respect and committee wasn’t pulling out any stops for her. Whether that was designed or an accident it’s what really happened. It was a really cold room and I think it was important to emphasize that moment when the psychology of a person is setup to fail.”
Pace and frame also took shape under careful consideration especially for an audience who already knows the outcome. “I think HBO looked to Rick because with Dope he kept the audience guessing. The one thing about Confirmation is there’s no surprise in how it’s going to end so keeping the audience engaged is the first question. The second is when you’re trying to be fair to multiple sides of the story it can be easily become expository,” Morrison says. “Knowing that these two things were stacked against us we had to keep it dynamic and energetic enough that it wouldn’t feel expository. So beyond the archived material from various media outlets that would be sourced and provided by editor Dirk Westervelt, we shot our own material to blend with the archival in order to illustrate that everyone was watching, judging and weighing in – it was like watching a sporting match with each side gaining than losing the upper hand.
For the film’s climatic ending, which has Hill and Thomas delivering their testimony, the cinematographer had to find a way to move the camera without being obtrusive. “I think there’s always that challenge and conundrum of how to move the camera when the main characters are not moving. I find that it can be very distracting very quickly and we don’t want people thinking about camera moves,” Morrison notes. “There’s a progression throughout their speeches that needed to be emphasized and looked at in terms of the psychology of what they were going through. There were times when we were very deliberate with a push in or a move, but we tried sticking to specific moments in those scenes.”
To heighten the realism of the testimony, production added various strobes to act as camera flashes from the press. “When you use typical flashes and not paddle flashes you get this half frame rolling shutter effect. If you adjust the shutter to 270° when there’s little movement it really helps. When literally no one’s moving you can move it to 360° and guarantee you won’t get that effect. At 180°, you’re really chancing it. We ended up mixing straight flashes and our adjusted shutter angle with other paddle flashes, and in moments where both talent and camera were moving, we used the paddle flashes more. We also had this homemade rig that had a ton of LED’s on a dimmer system which would create a burst effect when turned on and off,” Morrison explains.
Throughout the process the team looked for ways to stay true to the story. Whether it was a subtle in-camera device like pulling down the contrast and saturation or pushing the limits of an anamorphic frame – Confirmation was meticulously crafted with veracious visuals and commanding acting, making it definitely worth seeing.
Photos: Frank Masi/HBO