Strange Justice (review)

To Tell the Truth

Eight years on, I can still remember the rancor and the indignant frustration of office watercooler arguments, each person utterly certain that he knew who was lying and who was telling the truth.

Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill.

To this day, the names epitomize the he-said/she-said nature of sexual harassment. But as Strange Justice shows, the truth of the matter was not so up in the air. The truth, in fact, was an ignored casualty in an all-out, inside-the-Beltway, public relations war.
When Thurgood Marshall (Paul Winfield) announces his retirement from the Supreme Court in 1991, White House aides to President Bush are ecstatic, overjoyed to be rid of the left-wing justice. They plan to “really stick it to the liberals” with the president’s choice for his replacement: conservative judge Clarence Thomas (Delroy Lindo: A Life Less Ordinary), who just happens to be black. Spinmeister Ken Duberstein (Mandy Patinkin), hired to “sell” Thomas to the Senate confirmation committee, couldn’t be happier: He knows the NAACP and liberals in general are going to tie themselves up in knots over Thomas, trying to figure out where to stand on a black man who leans to the right.

And the PR machine swings into action: Duberstein and his team develop a fake “grassroots” campaign supporting Thomas’s confirmation. The “high drama” of Thomas’s life story — a child born into poverty now heading for the Supreme Court — is played up. Duberstein coaches Thomas on how to tiptoe around touchy issues like abortion. Duberstein’s approach — which is Washington’s approach — is clear: Don’t tell the truth, just what people want to hear.

So even before Anita Hill (Regina Taylor: The Negotiator) reluctantly appears on the scene, truth is already a victim in Thomas’s confirmation process. So it’s hardly surprising that even the Democrats on the Senate confirmation committee — traditionally supporters of women’s issues — grill Hill much harder on her allegations of sexual harassment than they do Thomas, and work to suppress corroborating witnesses to Hill’s testimony: They’re afraid to be seen as railroading a black man.

Strange Justice doesn’t portray any of the alleged events that almost brought Thomas’s nomination down, but it nevertheless gets plenty of drama out of the machinations of behind-the-scenes Washington, events the public did not see on CNN and likely would have swayed public opinion were they known at the time. And while the film, on the surface, seems fairly balanced and straightforwardly journalistic, it does ultimately editorialize. The film is not terribly sympathetic to Thomas: It depicts him as a bit naive about the political process, which seems unlikely for someone who’d been through several judicial confirmations before (though none so nastily public). In a tense scene with FBI agents investigating Hill’s allegations, Thomas’s vehement denials seem more a case of fear of being caught than fear of being wrongfully accused.

Patinkin does his usual fabulous job as the slick and slightly sleazy Duberstein, but Lindo and Taylor steal the show. Director Ernest R. Dickerson gives them both a showcase in the final scenes. While everyone else sees Thomas’s and Hill’s testimony before the Senate committee the way they played out on TV — reading prepared statements in the glare of harsh lights — we see them as they must have seen themselves. In a darkened Senate chamber, a pool of light rests only as Thomas as he spreads his arms, sleeves rolled up, onto the table as he speaks, like he imagines himself being crucified. Hill expresses all the emotion one supposes she must have only let vent in private: tears of anger and frustration, barely contained rage. Both Lindo and Taylor are riveting.

A dispiriting indictment of a political system in which image comes first and the truth must be hidden, Strange Justice — based on the National Book Award finalist of the same name — offers a new perspective on the “train wreck of race, sex, politics” that was the Thomas/Hill debacle. But it doesn’t offer much hope that Washington’s priorities will ever change.

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