NEW YORK — It’s impressive how Wendell Pierce confronts the challenge of his latest role, that of Clarence Thomas: with a hearty dose of empathy.
Granted, Pierce has never been nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court, and has little firsthand experience at the center of a firestorm like the 1991 nomination hearings where law professor Anita Hill accused her former boss at both the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of numerous cases of sexual harassment.
That is the explosive story of “Confirmation,” which premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday on HBO. It also stars Kerry Washington as Hill, Thomas’ reluctant but forceful accuser during a toxic process that eventually delivered him, by a narrow margin, his prize as associate justice but which, in a broader sense, left no one a winner.
Even a quarter-century later, Thomas remains on trial as a polarizing figure. He is either reviled or defended bitterly with every court decision, or even at just the mention of his name.
And yet Pierce says in portraying Thomas, he was able to empathize with his subject.
“It’s an open secret that we don’t share the same political views,” he says. “But the epiphany for me was not how little we have in common, but how much: We’re both from two African-American Southern families going back to slavery and living through violent Jim Crow laws who understood that love of family and putting a premium on education and religious faith are key. That’s what opened the door for me to play him.”
The confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee were aired gavel-to-gavel before a rapt national audience, including Pierce.
“But now we have a generation of people who don’t know anything about it,” he says. “They don’t know that it was a watershed moment when it comes to the strength of the EEOC and a heightened awareness of sexual harassment. We have a whole generation of millennials who don’t even know how these protections came about in human resources departments and sexual harassment seminars. They know nothing about this public debate that we had 25 years ago.”
Pierce may be right, but “public debate” is a generous term for the shame of what went on.
Hill’s graphic accounts threatened to derail Thomas’ confirmation and wreck his reputation.
In response, Thomas’ champions set about to discredit and demonize Hill.
Then racist allegations were added to the mix, despite the fact that both Hill and Thomas were black. In his most telling moment, and perhaps his winning play before the all-white-male committee, the 43-year-old Thomas, feeling cornered and under siege, changed the subject from sexual harassment to bigotry by blasting the hearings as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”
Pierce calls this eruption Thomas’ “moment of revelation: ‘I’m not gonna hold back, I’m gonna throw caution to the wind.’ Replicating that speech opened the door for me to play what his inner life was, or at least what I think it was. This ultimately for him was not a political journey. It was a very personal journey. So it was easy for me to push the politics aside in playing him.”
The result is a surprisingly supportive portrayal of a man Pierce describes as “about to mount the summit of the highest office in his profession, but then some events from his past come back to haunt him.”
In depicting Thomas, Pierce was not only empathetic but also meticulous.
“To prepare for the technical part, I watched the tapes of the hearings: How does he speak? How was he sitting? I wanted to make sure that I reflected that, almost like a musician with a score.”
But despite his best efforts, Pierce — the lovable, almost helplessly sweet-faced star of such dramas as “The Wire” and “Treme” and sitcoms including “The Michael J. Fox Show” — can’t match Thomas’ searing glare as it was witnessed by viewers of the hearings, and he is unable to sharpen his voice, which naturally caresses the ear like a Barry White homage, into Thomas’ adenoidal cadences.
While Kerry Washington makes a persuasive Anita Hill, Greg Kinnear barely gets by in the central role of then Sen. Joe Biden, who chaired the committee.
Still, “Confirmation” packs a punch in revisiting this supreme clash with sufficient fairness that it may leave partisans from both camps unsatisfied.
And with the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the film arrives, by sheer chance, just in time to set the stage for another scorched-earth selection process possibly in the offing.
Meanwhile, months after the film wrapped, Wendell Pierce remains fascinated with the enigmatic character he played, still trying to make sense of all the two of them share, and don’t.
“The filmmaking process got me to a place where I want to meet him,” Pierce says. “I would like to know where the fork in the road comes for us: how he went down one path and I went down another.”