Director Rick Famuyiwa’s debut, The Wood, was a semi-autobiographical film set in Inglewood, where he grew up, and filled with characters based on the family and friends who helped shape his young life. Last year’s Dope, about an ambitious teen trying to go from Inglewood to Harvard, also drew from Famuyiwa’s experience, in a less direct way. With his latest feature, though, for the first time ever, he’s recreating a piece of history he only experienced, like nearly everyone else around at the time did, by watching along on TV.
Famuyiwa was at the University of Southern California in 1991, when the hearing began for Clarence Thomas’s confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice. He was a political science major at the time, having not yet transferred to his film school destiny, and so when the hearing gravitated toward Anita Hill, Famuyiwa was riveted. He recognized that he was living through a radical chapter of the kind of history he and his classmates were losing sleep studying. Now, 25 years later, he’s hoping his cinematic version of that moment, Confirmation, will have the same entrancing effect on HBO viewers.
Confirmation stars Kerry Washington as Anita Hill, the lawyer whose reluctant accusations against her former boss at the Department of Education and Equal Opportunity Commission, Clarence Thomas, brought about an increased focus on sexual harassment, and empowered women to speak up about it. (Thomas is played by HBO vet, Wendell Pierce, from The Wire and Treme.) Although Famuyiwa was familiar from his other films with investigating his past, he had to adjust his approach to directing when it came to examining–and reproducing–Americans’ shared past. In advance of Confirmation’s premiere on April 16, Co.Create talked with Famuyiwa about objectivity, old footage, and how we used to get our news.
“It was interesting, when I went back and realized the testimony only took place over three days total,” Famuyiwa says. “My recollection for the time was that it was going on all the time for weeks and weeks. And I think that’s because it was so concentrated, the coverage of it was so intense. It wasn’t like today where we’re we get our information and news through such disparate avenues that there’s very little besides the Super Bowl that kind of captures the public imagination at once. This particular period where Anita Hill surfaced was very compressed. I wanted to reflect that in the storytelling because I felt like that was a part of why it was such a pivotal moment in our history; it wasn’t just the salacious allegations and the nomination, but that we collectively watched and that at the time there was really just the three networks and CNN. It was fascinating how much editorial power these three places had to shape public opinion. And how they covered it really shaped our point of view in a way that, today, we’re completely distrustful of those sources but back then we completely trusted their reportage.”
“There were hours and hours of old TV news material to comb through–it was a deep and long process–but I think mostly what I wanted to use the footage for was to contextualize and illuminate and give that sense of how we were receiving information,” Famuyiwa says. “Because we as an audience weren’t privy to any behind the scenes information, we were just hearing the accounts being reported by various news agencies. I think in some cases, the footage informed things that I thought about before I shot. I wanted certain moments where we would have some journalistic commentary, but then other moments came after putting a cut together and feeling like we have more context here and there, so it became a sort of improvisational feel about where and how these things needed to land in the film more than anything that was scripted, because they weren’t.”
“Some may feel it’s a cop out, but we don’t really know the specifics of what happened–we have a record where one person said something happened, and one person went on the record under oath and said it didn’t happen, and there hasn’t necessarily been any investigation or reporting that’s said one has been definitively in one place or the other,” Famuyiwa says. “At least for me, it wasn’t interesting to dig into what that story was or what that incident was or trying to get any sort of narrative push out of that. For me, what was compelling was the mere fact that you had these two people who were very successful and accomplished in their own right testifying to these salacious allegations and that you had a panel of senators that looked nothing like them—all white male senators—and these two black people testifying.”
“I thought there was narrative propulsion in that that was more dynamic than just the he said/she said of it, and so it made it easier to kind of deal with it in real time and say in 1991 nobody knew or could even suppose to know what the truth was, so we were going by the information that was coming out as it was coming out. Everyone was reacting in real time from the senators to Thomas to Anita Hill, and we didn’t have the 20/20 hindsight that we do now. I wanted to deal with it in the moment, and once I decided to do that, and not necessarily through the lens of 25 years later, it made it easier to say we’re not necessarily going to go one way or the other about who was telling the truth or who wasn’t.”
“Most of these people are still around and still vibrant and one of them is a sitting vice president and one of them is a Supreme Court Justice,” Famuyiwa says. “At the end of the day, it is a film and we had to do what we had to do to take an event that took place over several days and weeks and compress it into an hour and 40 minute film. The main challenges just had to do with balancing your instincts to tell a story with characters a certain way vs the historical record. So often there’d be moments where obviously if I was just writing this is a fiction, I’d say, ‘Now it’s time for a scene where this happens or now a character does this or that,’ and obviously that was the challenge of this is that you can’t create those moments. So you sort of have to find the moments around the hearings and around the testimony, find character beats, but not get too far into your imagination that you’re not staying true to who these people are. But you definitely think about it and you understand that because it’s our recent history, that makes it more challenging than making a film about people who are not around to comment on it any more.