“Confirmation”—The Sexual Harassment of Anita Hill


Almost twenty-five years ago, Anita Hill testified in front of an all-white male congressional hearing presided over by Senator Joe Biden, accusing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, a legal concept that did not, as yet, resonate with the American public. In “Confirmation”, an HBO mini-series, we see the reliving of the riveting testimony: Anita Hill’s accusations and Clarence Thomas’s defense with almost exact wording from the hearing transcripts.

At times the hearing seems to deal with race – particularly after Thomas’s “high tech lynching” comment, which struck an emotional chord for some and a signal for others that Hill’s testimony would be discounted. What “Confirmation” actually zeroes in on is how Anita Hill’s world on the job was radically different from a male colleague’s. Although sexual harassment had been defined as a form of sexual discrimination in 1977, almost fifteen years later the term “sexual harassment” was still not in the public conscience. The Anita Hill testimony changed that.

Hardly anyone knew what characterized sexual harassment, let alone how it impacted women in the workforce. Kerry Washington (as Anita Hill) brings this past astonishingly into the present, wearing a copy of the same turquoise suit and hairstyle of Hill, and recreating Anita Hill’s voice, cadence, mannerisms and facial expressions. For those of us who remember the original hearings, Kerry Washington’s performance is no less than astonishing. Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas also gives an award-worthy performance, imbuing Thomas with dignity and, at times, a sympathetic quality.

A drama that is more of a “street fight”, “Confirmation” portrays Senators Ted Kennedy (played by Treat Williams), John Danforth (Bill Irwin) and Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear) as unlikeable characters who engage in behind-the-scenes fights and digging for dirt or backing down under political pressure. Not since “House of Cards” has this viewer seen such political ruthlessness and behind-the-scenes maneuverings. Part fact, part fiction “Confirmation” is spell-binding.


Jackie Robinson Day—April 15



In the two-part Ken Burns’ documentary, “Jackie Robinson”, broadcast this past week on PBS television, we are immediately hooked by the legendary baseball player’s opening statement: “If I had a room jammed with trophies, awards and citations, and a child of mine came into that room and asked what I had done in defense of black people and decent whites fighting for freedom, and I had to tell that child that I had kept quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to mark myself a total failure at the whole business of living.”

In raw archival footage and interviews we see Jackie Robinson’s historic breaking of the major league baseball color barrier on April 15, 1947 when he steps out onto Ebbetts Field to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers (now the LA Dodgers) with fury and racist slurs thrown at him from the stands and from his fellow team members. An outspoken and confident man, Robinson is nonetheless advised by the team’s manager (Branch Rickey) to remain non-confrontational in the face of violent assaults both physical and verbal, and to seek solace in the privacy of his family life. The portrait of Jackie Robinson reveals a more complex, vulnerable, and astonishingly heroic man both tragic and pioneering. The viewer has no doubt of the immense difficulty for Robinson to remain silent in the face of such brutality and injustice.

What Burns contributes to our knowledge of this shameful period of US history is Robinson’s equally courageous life after baseball: his contributions to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Jackie Robinson was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides,” and enlisted his participation in some of the organized civil rights marches.

After Robinson’s baseball career ended, he became a newspaper columnist on race relations, a political advocate for civil rights, and a successful executive for a famous coffee company (Chockful o’Nuts) as well as the founder of a bank for African Americans. This post-baseball career, not as well-known to many of us, in some ways even transcends his athletic achievements.

One of the more remarkable elements of the “Jackie Robinson” miniseries, is Robinson’s luminescent 93-year old  widow Rachel, a sensitive, highly intelligent and caring woman who seemed to buffer her husband from the most insidious pressures on him and his family. This documentary is as much Rachel’s story as it is Jackie’s, because she is our witness to what Jackie felt and believed but could not give voice to in those early years of his baseball career. She describes in unsparing words how her husband collapsed in her arms from a fatal heart attack after years of increasing debilitation from diabetes. He was  53 years old.

Little known facts about Robinson are explained; 1) why he was an early supporter of Nixon who seemed to be more supportive of civil rights than JFK; 2) why his support for Republican candidates seemed the right direction for African Americans after the military was integrated and Brown vs. Board of Education was decided; 3) his reaction to Malcom X and others calling him an Uncle Tom.

If the black press hadn’t strongly advocated over the years for civil rights, and if political pressure outside baseball hadn’t coalesced at this time due in part to Jackie Robinson, gains in civil rights would not have happened. It’s this sequence of historically inconvenient truths that “Jackie Robinson” makes us confront.


This year, the city of Philadelphia officially apologized for the racist taunts that members of the Phillies baseball team rained on Jackie Robinson when the Dodgers played them [almost seventy years after the game in question].


“99 Homes”—And the Other One Percent


99 Homes

It is no longer possible to have a serious discussion about poverty and the income gap without having a serious discussion about housing. “99 Homes” dramatizes this tragic social ill. [Last week’s publication of Evicted by Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, demonstrates through statistics how eviction feeds the cycle of poverty.]

In this country the human cost and callous treatment of those evicted is not publicized until now. “99Homes” is a vivid portrayal of the humiliation, greed, and perversion of the legal system which allows eviction without recourse or appeal. Directed by newcomer Ramin Bahrani (producer of “Man Push Cart”), “99 Homes” opens with a scene of the pending eviction of unpaid and now a recently unemployed construction worker Dennis Nash (the gifted Andrew Garfield).   The fabulously wealthy but ruthless real-estate dealer, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), fully realizes the dangers of eviction. The desperate, angry and now homeless residents he deals with have lost everything and therefore have nothing to lose. Soon jobless Dennis Nash unexpectedly ends up working for Carver as a server of eviction notices himself. What choice does he have—homelessness or serving the agent responsible for his situation?

As the working middle class and poor sometimes pay as much as 88% of their take home pay for their housing, we understand the vulnerability, anger, and life-threatening behavior they resort to in moments of utter hopelessness. Clear-eyed and nonjudgmental in tone, “99 Homes” portrays the desperation and panic of people who are rendered homeless in the blink of an eye for failure to pay a few months’ mortgage or rent. “99 Homes” highlights the vulnerability of single mothers, the elderly, and people of color. There are no easy answers.