JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Orrin Hatch rises to Clarence Thomas’s defense by attacking Anita Hill’s ethics, sexuality, and her sanity.  The scene suggests the power politics of this moment ...

... through its interplay of documentary and docudramatic material.  It intercuts a documentary image of Hatch from the hearing video transcript with docudramatic re-creations of Thomas at the witness table ....

... and Hill, forced to watch the hearing on television in her hotel room.

In the credits for Strange Justice George Bush appears as himself.  Here the re-created Clarence Thomas, portrayed by Delroy Lindo, has replaced the actual figure of Clarence Thomas in this archive footage of the press conference announcing Thomas’s nomination.  By sharing the same cinematic space the re-created material claims close proximity to the real.

Hatch displays the “goods” on Hill that his researchers have compiled, offered here as evidence that supports Thomas by discrediting Hill.  Against Anita Hill’s spoken words, Hatch offers words in print, framed by Hatch’s (not Thomas’s) claims that indicate that Hill’s story is a lie.

Thomas’s presence in the hearing room allows him the opportunity to assent to Hatch’s assertions.

Since Anita Hill was not allowed to rebut in committee the attack on her testimony, she and her supporters ...

... are only allowed the opportunity to respond to and reinforce each other.

 

 

 

Strange Justice
Sounding out the Right:
Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill,
and constructing spin in
the name of justice

by  Steve Lipkin

The made-for-television docudrama Strange Justice revisits the events during the tempestuous summer of 1991 that saw the ascendance of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court. The film shows us how and why Anita Hill stepped forward to oppose the nomination, and the response to this confrontation by the United States Senate Judiciary Committee. The film bases much of its re-creation on transcripts of press conferences and Judiciary Committee hearings. Through its weaving together of actual and re-created sound and image materials, the film’s suturing strategies both model and deconstruct the “spin” that framed Thomas’s campaign for confirmation and Hill’s opposition. Strange Justice provides an analysis of spin. Its own suturing of real and recreated materials models the very processes it exposes of shaping public perception and opinion. By analyzing and exposing where and how the real and the fabricated interact in the program's construction, I hope also to reveal how Thomas became an effective construction of the political right. In its audio-visual shaping, Strange Justice forecasts how those same strategies of suturing real and recreated material would be brought into play in present-day politics of presidential power and Supreme Court nominations.

“Spin” has become an everyday term, describing the process of using the media to frame people, actions, and events in order to shape public perception and ultimately public opinion. We understand that spin entails a blend of the real and its construction, a strategic mixture of fact and myth. The work of “spin”, or, if you will, spinning “the real” has two literal senses that show the appropriateness of the term: To “spin” something means to turn it, so that we can view it and perhaps see it differently from multiple perspectives, while “spinning” also suggests the manufacturing of thread, from which the spinner can weave cloth. These literal and figurative meanings of “spin” all apply in the case of Strange Justice.

The Showtime Networks aired Strange Justice (E. Dickerson, 1999) in September of 1999, fully eight years after the events occurred which this “based-on-a-true-story” work re-recreates.[1] As a movie-of-the-week docudrama, Strange Justice frames real and re-created events within the overall form of a classic Hollywood narrative. The “true story” we see in this case balances well-known, widely seen documentary imagery with events that did not occur before network television cameras. Consequently Strange Justice covers the announcement of Thomas’s nomination to the Court, the preparation for his nomination hearings, the subsequent U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings, including the key testimony by both Thomas and Anita Hill, and the repercussions of Hill’s charges. Strange Justice approaches this basic subject matter as a combination of history and political psychodrama. At key moments during hearings, the film shifts between straightforward documentary material, conventional narrative re-creation of events and the principals involved, and highly theatricalized interpretation of the testimony. The perspective the film offers is to view these events through the prism of docudrama, and specifically as a true story about storytelling. The overall argument Strange Justice develops is that the legal, political, and ethical issues raised by the Thomas nomination should be understood most fruitfully as the product of initiating and reformulating Thomas’s story. Within this larger approach, the film then shows us the “whole cloth” spun from this process by foregrounding the blend of actuality and re-creation in specific scenes and sequences.

There are several reasons why the Clarence Thomas nomination story is best understood as a matter of spin. First, the Thomas nomination provides a glaring and consequently illustrative instance of how effectively conservative political interests in the United States have, over several decades, marshaled the means to manipulate public opinion. Second, Thomas himself, as the embodiment of paradoxes of race and identity, invited the possibility of being perceived from multiple perspectives. Third, as Thomas’s nomination hearing became a forum for the exercise of power by conservative political interests, the process redefined the public perception of the roles of victimizer and victim. This abuse of process culminated in Thomas’s confirmation, as well as allowing conservative committee members the opportunity to serve as advocates on Thomas’s behalf, rather than function as impartial servants of the larger public interest.

Following on the heels of embedded journalists, the exploitation of Jessica Lynch, the deflection of responsibility for Abu Ghraib, the performances of Rice and Rumsfeld before the 9/11 Commission, and the various and sundry fictions of the 2004 presidential campaign (“town hall” meetings; Swiftboat Veterans for Truth), early 2005 saw some (belated) attention turned to the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to control the media. For example, there were news reports on the administration's support of a fake White House press correspondent, its investment of substantial amounts of taxpayer dollars to pay former journalist Karen Ryan to produce government public relations pieces, to pay columnist Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote No Child Left Behind, to stage “conversations” on its proposed reform of Social Security, to create a Department of Homeland Security public relations campaign, and to produce and distribute on evening newscasts video “news” releases. (Rich; Barstow) Conservative political interests in the U.S., however, systematically have developed financial and organizational resources in order to spin their stories. They have done this for decades since briefly losing the White House to Jimmy Carter.

The Clarence Thomas nomination was supported and promoted by conservative foundations begun in the 1970s (most notably the Heritage Foundation and its offshoot, the Free Congress Foundation). (Mayer 13; 152-3) The likelihood that a Thomas nomination would aid the causes of re-institutionalizing prayer in public schools, the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and the curtailment of gay rights earned it support from an alliance of black and white religious conservative groups, which had become prominent during the Reagan administration, including Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, and the Citizens Committee, an organization of white evangelical ministers. (Mayer 175; 191-2; 196; also Marable 72-3) In sum, the Thomas nomination fit neatly into a twenty-year sustained effort by conservative interests to “form strategic alliances around common issues they support” and had developed the resources to promote. (Hazen)

As a conservative African American, Thomas-as-nominee offered a veritable rainbow of opportunities for spin. During the Reagan administration Supreme Court nominations became a focal point for the consolidation of conservative, if not right-wing political power. As of early 2005, seven out of nine sitting Supreme Court justices had been appointed by Republican presidents (Stevens by Ford; O’Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia, and Kennedy by Reagan; Souter and Thomas by the first President Bush). The nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 failed in part because the NAACP opposed his record on civil rights, thus the pragmatic, strategic advantage to a Republican administration of the Thomas nomination.[2]

Thomas’s record as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) during the Reagan administration and his subsequent appointment to the D.C. Circuit Court posed some basic paradoxes that necessitated spinning the candidate to ensure his confirmation. Thomas had taken public stances against Affirmative Action, even though he had benefited from it in his admissions to Holy Cross and Yale, yet his job as the head of EEOC was to enforce its provisions (Marable 61-3; Mayer 18-9; 53). Thomas felt that Affirmative Action stigmatized its beneficiaries, creating what he called “black work.” Yet in his first appearances before the public and the Senate Judiciary Committee, he embraced the mythology of growing up poor and black in Pinpoint, Georgia. Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court even though he “had never litigated a case before a jury” … “nor, during his brief stint as a judge, had he issued a single substantive constitutional opinion” (Mayer 21). This record was due in part perhaps because he had joined a DC Circuit bench that had featured the likes of Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and Ken Starr. (Mayer 162)

Given the multiple perspectives Thomas’s record as a nominee allowed, and the commitment the conservative core of the Republican party had made to ensuring his nomination, it is no surprise that the public’s perception of Thomas required its most extreme molding during the Senate nomination hearings, especially as Anita Hill’s claims finally became public that she had been sexually harassed by Thomas when they both worked at the EEOC. In essence, Hill’s charges and the Committee’s efforts to deflect them made strikingly evident how the Senate Judiciary Committee’s process had been focused on its construction of Thomas. Sticking to this story highlighted the identity politics grounding the redefinition of the roles of all involved. Analyses by Jane Flax, Toni Morrison, and Hill herself [3] have examined in detail the ways rhetorical elements of the Thomas hearings display how bald the exercise of the politics of race and identity became at this moment. I would like to draw upon this larger discussion to focus briefly on how Strange Justice depicts the role changes that the work of spin created. Specifically Thomas, with the encouragement of the Committee, recast himself as victim and Hill as victimizer. The Committee, departing from its role as evaluators, became collaborators with Thomas in this construction project, and then became his advocates.

In the first (and what originally was to be the only) round of hearings, Thomas embraced the confirmation process as the culmination of the opportunity the United States had offered him. The second set of hearings allowed Hill to testify and Thomas to rebut. Jane Flax and others have argued that the commitment the Committee had made to Thomas prevented it from entertaining the recognition of Thomas as victimizer and Anita Hill as a victim; in fact, the case is just the opposite.[4] Hill’s testimony threatened the shared “American Dream” narrative that Thomas and the Committee in concert had fashioned, and consequently made it necessary for the process to expunge Hill. (Flax 50) Here with the help of the Committee, Thomas changes his role from one offered fulfillment through his participation in a Horatio Alger-like American upward mobilization, to, ironically, one who has been damaged by the very same process. In calling the Committee’s airing of Hill’s charges “a high tech lynching for uppity blacks,” in one of its most notorious moments Thomas suggests he has been victimized both by the confirmation process itself, and by an irrational, duplicitous African American woman’s exploitation of his sexual and racial identity.[5]

In re-creating the evolution of this role reversal, Strange Justice illuminates the dynamics of how the culmination of Thomas’s nomination before the Senate Judiciary Committee invited a confirmation hearing to serve an explicitly political process. This is evident in the film’s larger structure, as well as in specific scenes that re-create the hearings themselves. While a number of the film’s critics noted the “edgy” and even “surreal” elements of the hearing scenes, I would like to focus more on how, in these moments, the film equates political power with acoustic space in its adaptation of the video transcript of the hearing.

(Continued:Storytelling and political power)


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