Wendell Pierce remembers a lot of traveling back and forth between New York City and San Francisco in the fall of 1991. Being a self-described “politics wonk,” his trips did not dampen his interest in what was happening in Washington, D.C. at the time. President George H. W. Bush had just nominated fellow Yale alumnus Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court to fill the spot being vacated by the celebrated justice, Thurgood Marshall.
Pierce said, “At the time, I was interested in all confirmation hearings because of their importance.” The usually staid nature of the confirmation process for Supreme Court justice had been turned on its head by the allegations of a University of Oklahoma Law School professor named Anita Hill. Hill asserted that the Supreme Court nominee at that time, Clarence Thomas, had made some vulgar sexual advances when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Pierce said he saw, “Two successful African-Americans who were airing some painful and difficult and tawdry stuff.” Now, Pierce stars as Clarence Thomas in the HBO movie “Confirmation,” which dramatizes that watershed event. The film also stars Kerry Washington in a masterful turn as Hill, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, Kimberly Elise and Greg Kinnear.
Asked if he saw any parallels between the Clarence Thomas issue and the current scandal involving comic Bill Cosby, Pierce replied, “What’s happening with Bill Cosby is criminal investigations. This was 25 years ago a public discussion about gender inequality, workplace harassment, sexual harassment.”
He explained further that with regard to Hill and Thomas, “These are two people who actually had a [professional] relationship for years, and I think rape is something on a whole different level. It is a very violent crime. Sexual harassment is a crime of insensitivity and lack of awareness. I know that sexual harassment comes from an unawareness, but that unawareness does not absolve you. And so I think that’s why we do film, that’s why we do art. To have the discussion as a community and declare what our values are and then act on them.”
Although the issue is a highly politically charged one, Juilliard-trained Pierce did not approach or execute the role of Thomas from the standpoint of art. “This story is about a man who at the pinnacle of his career when he is about to mount the summit and go to the highest office in his profession is challenged and could lose it all because of the events of the past,” he said. “It sends you on a personal roller coaster.”
A specific phrase used by Thomas resonated with Pierce and served as an entree into the psyche of the controversial jurist. He explained, “That phrase that he said in the confirmation hearing: ‘I deny each and every one of these allegations, but if there was anything I said or did to offend Anita Hill or any other woman, I’m so very absolutely sorry.’ That made me realize that there was some self-reflection. So he opened the window to me understanding how to play and develop the emotional inner life of someone who is reflecting on ‘What did I say?’ ‘What could have happened?’ ‘How could she?’ ‘Why would a friend…?’ It gives the actor a lot to play.”
But that was just half of the job. There were also the technical aspects of the role that had to be worked out as well. Pierce accomplished this feat by watching tapes of the confirmation. “As a student of human behavior you want to replicate the phrasing, you want to replicate the human behavior of him and how he sat rigid and then tie that to an emotion,” he said. “The rigidity was like, ‘I just wanna control myself.’ He was like a powder keg ready to explode.”
The most memorable part of Thomas’ testimony was his invocation of the disquieting imagery of lynching. For Pierce as an actor, the moment was remarkable not only for what was said but also for how it was said. “When he finished his testimony, his rebuttal, he sits back and then he gets the idea to come forward and say one last thing, which became the most iconic phrase in the hearings you know, this is a ‘high tech lynching’ and if you watch it, that for an actor, it fuels you, it gives you something to play,” Pierce explained.
Like many observers, Pierce admits to a certain frustration with the logical, or lack thereof, underpinnings of Thomas’ views on race. “One of the things that amazes me is when he went back to Savannah to become a lawyer, he could never get a job and he didn’t see it as these [good] ‘ol boy networks, old white guy networks that just would not hire a black lawyer,” Pierce noted. “He said they didn’t hire him because they knew his degree from Yale was affirmative action. I was like, ‘No, the minute you walked in, even if you hadn’t gotten affirmative action, they would have never hired you anyway. That’s not the reason.’ However, for me playing him, that’s all political. That has nothing to do with the man about to lose everything because of something that happened in the past.”
As to the historical and cultural significance of the events dramatized in the film, Pierce explained “This moment defines how we changed our view of sexual harassment. Before this moment, they didn’t have HR departments that were focusing on it. Now we do. We have sexual harassment seminars in corporate offices and businesses all around the country. It strengthened the EEOC. People put in more complaints. So the public discourse, that is the value that came out of this ugly time. We had a public debate about it, and we declared that we are intolerant of this sort of behavior and it became a part of our cultural tradition to make sure that we root it out and educate people as to how not to sexually harass people and also hold people more accountable. This was the turning point. It never happened before and that’s what you see in the film.”
Pierce is also busy with other projects. He stars as a lonely dentist who discovers he has a grown daughter, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, in “One Last Thing,” and he is producing a movie called “Billy,” about a 10-year-old boy who is sentenced to be electrocuted in 1950s Mississippi. He describes Billy as “a very intense drama about how we value lives.” He also has written a book titled, “The Wind in the Reeds,” in which he chronicles his vow to rebuild his New Orleans hometown community of Pontchartrain Park and his family home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He said the book is also about “finding out about the legacy of my family and how you service that legacy.”
“Writing that book and reading the justice’s book made me realize how much we have in common and that was an epiphany for me,” he said, “We had more in common than we didn’t, and it opened my eyes. Black folks can never be seen as monolithic in thinking one way politically, and we have a tendency to impose that upon ourselves. Because he is vilified in the community and that’s what he’s saying in that speech: ‘I think differently and therefore I am being vilified for that. You guys normally do that, and my community does that to me, too. Once again, both my community and racists outside my community are affecting me.’”
“Confirmation” premiered April 16 on HBO.