JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Duberstein instructed Hatch to make sure that he held up the copy of The Exorcist he read from, so that it would be prominent on camera (see endnote #7).

This image renders one of Hill’s darker moments in literal darkness, graphically separating her even from her supporters.  Hatch has questioned the credibility of Hill’s claims that Thomas made sexually offensive statements while trying to convince Hill to go out on dates with him.  Hatch’s strategy of questioning the rationality of Hill’s claim, rather than Thomas’s alleged actions, effectively compounds the double-bind the harassment created originally.  The image evokes the suppressive (and repressive) power of the committee’s proceedings.

The shot breakdown of Hill on the telephone to Susan Ross (“truth hardly enters into it”) shows how Strange Justice has equated visual and acoustic space with the exercise of power.

The scene compares the expansive, empowering space of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room with this disempowered response to the hearing—only docudramatic re-creation makes Hill’s situation accessible.

The dimming of the background and the hard back and side lighting evoke the isolation of the witness and the sense, literally, of the darker side(s) of the story that are now to be thrust into the light of public exposure.

The radical shifts in setting, costume, and lighting at these moments emphasize the space of the hearing now as a stage.

Within the acoustic space of one sentence, conventional, documentary-style representation …

… breaks down, gives way, and realizes Thomas’s performative approach to the hearing.  The opportunity to perform ultimately sanctions his story and his confirmation.

Re-creation becomes psychodrama as Thomas acts out the words of his testimony.

The expressionist seed in Strange Justice’s docudramatic re-creation of Thomas’s testimony comes to full, performative fruition as he holds up his necktie to simulate a lynching.

 

Storytelling and political power 

Strange Justice argues most fundamentally that the best storyteller gains and maintains political power. Consequently the structure of the film models the processes it tells about and ultimately re-creates. This is evident in both character and plot. The film depicts the main players in Thomas’s camp as engaged in constructing the Thomas story, often in conflict with each other as to the best way to let the story be told. Central to this is Ken Duberstein, the handler hired by the Republican party to manage the Thomas nomination. Thomas himself comes to oppose Duberstein’s recommendations and strategies for what Thomas should say, and how he should say it. The film shows one of the most remembered moments of the 1991 trial (Thompson; M. Hill; Mink; James). This conflict between narratives reaches a climax when Thomas rejects Duberstein’s recommended response to Anita Hill’s testimony and creates one of his own that depicts him as victim of lynching. Subordinates work to facilitate the agendas of these sometimes aligned, sometimes conflicting narrators. The film’s re-creation of the equation of storytelling and power places Anita Hill in the position of offering a single story, a sole voice that can’t compete with the voices that rise up to oppose it. The Senate Judiciary committee minimizes or denies the opportunities to hear the stories of witnesses who would support Hill. We see the system redefine Hill’s role from speaker to listener, from witness with testimony to listener denied a venue for an adequate response. (Figs. 1, 2, and 3)

In addition to its depiction of characters as storytellers, Strange Justice also frames the nomination's history as a process of spinning the Thomas story by converting chronology itself into story structure. The film’s narrative arc breaks down into three stages the events transpiring during the two months from the announcement of Thomas’s nomination to his swearing in ceremony. The first, expository stage explains the political purpose underlying the nomination. As one aide comments, the Bush administration is “going to really stick it to the liberals on this one.” The “stick” is that as an African American, ultra-conservative judge with a track record antagonistic toward the rights of women and minorities, Clarence Thomas embodies ideological paradoxes. Larger narrative conflicts unfold and intensify in the second stage of this structure when preparations for framing Thomas’s story in the upcoming confirmation hearings encounter opposing stories: Thomas’s religious propriety becomes countered by allegations of spousal abuse and ultimately challenged most severely when the Anita Hill story comes to light.

The culmination of initiating and framing the Thomas story becomes, in the last stage of events, the recasting of Thomas as a victim of left ideologues. Here the on-screen storytelling processes most explicitly seize the power of definition, defining Thomas as an innocent in need of rescue, and Hill, his antagonist, as a liar, a dupe, and a plagiarist, whose sanity is questionable.

Strange Justice is both narration and demonstration. Within the story it tells about how conservative interests packaged and sold Clarence Thomas, the film illuminates its own docudramatic storytelling processes. Just as “spin” is a framing of an actuality to create perception and define its meaning, scenes throughout Strange Justice bring together real and re-created sounds and images to interact.[6] For example, during the initial press conference announcing Thomas’s nomination, the re-created Clarence Thomas appears to stand next to the actual George Bush (Fig. 4). I’ll discuss momentarily how Strange Justice’s presentation of the Senate confirmation hearing cuts between its video transcript of the Judiciary Committee and the reverse angles of the reactions of Thomas and Anita Hill. This juxtaposition within the same cinematic space legitimizes the view of events the film presents, bolstering the basis in truth the “based on a true story” narrative claims.

To illustrate Strange Justice’s own spinning of the real I’d like to focus on a key moment when the film presents one of its central arguments, that telling the Thomas story successfully demanded seizing the power of role definition, effectively reversing the perception of victimizer and victim. “The Exorcist” portion of the Thomas confirmation hearings in Strange Justice exemplifies the film’s analysis of the process of spin. The bedrock of this scene is its sound, the transcript of the actual hearing. Strange Justice allows the public record, the documentary material, to interact in several ways with what was not documented but can only be reported or inferred. In this instance, testimony and response to it set up the interplay of public and private space. Specifically we see the actuality in the public record relating the committee's action to define Anita Hill’s role, and the re-creation of her response. In the “Exorcist” scene we see Thomas’s supporters, with Orrin Hatch as their spokesman, riding to the rescue of their nominee. The scene sutures documentary material and re-creation, public and private space, to foreground Hatch’s dual role as advocate as well as accuser. Hatch here is presenting testimony and evidence on Thomas’s behalf in order to reframe the committee’s and the public’s perception of Hill. (Fig. 5) As the scene evolves Hatch’s accusations define Hill as a dupe of the left, a plagiarist, and ultimately as irrational for putting her accusations before the public. The interplay consequently positions Hill as accused, with no commensurate forum available for recourse or response. Thomas, the object of all this, becomes a bystander while Hatch takes the lead.

The construction of the scene sets several kinds of docudramatic interactions in motion, which carry out the progressive accusations and framing of Hill. The videotaped transcript of the hearing, its sound in particular, give the scene its spine, providing two-thirds of its framework. Brief cut-aways from documentary to re-created material show Thomas’s affirmation of Hatch’s points. Cut-aways also present the responses of Hill and her supporters while they watch the hearings in her hotel room. (Figs. 6, 7, and 8) Beyond simply setting up the interplay of public space that is “on the record” and the re-created representation of reaction to it, the juxtapositions and the interactions that result illuminate the exercise of power at this moment. Hatch’s presentation and the procedure of the committee are real and present before the public. As he acts as Thomas’s advocate, Hatch gives the support Thomas has in the Senate from like-minded conservatives actuality, weight, and momentum. The scene shows both Thomas and Hill for what they are in the process, quite literally, constructions of the discourse that has put them on the public agenda.

The presentation Hatch is making appears to follow a kind of cause-effect logic. The left's “digging up the dirt” that Thomas has alluded to in prior testimony leads to unearthing the likely source of the infamous “pubic hair on the Coke” claim, in The Exorcist. (Fig. 9) That Hill would testify to this claim shows her as

  • a pawn of the left,
  • a plagiarist (Hatch says, “I submit, those things were found”),
  • possibly irrational (“she would have us believe that you were saying these things because you wanted to date her?”) and
  • an opportunist (“she didn’t say it in her four-page statement, but … she said it yesterday”).[7]]

The edited film scene has compressed and rearranged the actual transcript material to make this logical progression emphatic. In the proceedings transcript, Hatch brings up finding The Exorcist as the allegation's source before mentioning the investigators trying to dig up material to damage Thomas (see Miller 161). The final note in this progression is to reframe the very presence of Hill’s family, ostensibly there to support her, as opportunism. Hatch’s statements gradually fade out as he is commenting on Hill’s family, that

“they looked beautiful, they look like wonderful people to me. Look at her parents, they are clearly good people, clearly, her sisters, clearly good people. But I saw the entourage come in, and I’m not saying they did this, [but can bet your bottom dollar that someone found every possible stereotype, to use your terms]”

The interplay between public and private events in the scene emphasizes and clarifies how the procedural logic of the hearing favors the preferences of power, as well as illuminates how power lies in what can be constructed before the public. Hatch is responding to statements Hill made previously. In this procedure Hill and other women who would provide evidence to support her claims are suppressed precisely because what they are saying has been cast in the perspective of abusing the nominee. The committee’s procedural exclusions state, essentially, that what happens in private space should remain there. (Fig. 10) Hill is never given the opportunity to respond to Hatch’s claims before the committee. The structure of the scene juxtaposes the assertion that Hill opportunely has brought up the plagiarized Coke can story with Hill only able to reassert her victimization in the limited privacy of her hotel suite. Even worse, in this scene she is only allowed to do so through the even more confining, more private space of a telephone call. (Fig. 11) And this call can only offer the consolation that “it’s politics, truth hardly enters into it.” (Fig. 12)

A second strategy that the film uses to frame this interaction of documentary record and response is to theatricalize public space. This is done in order to project onto the outer world the interior action the words in the hearing transcripts connote. (Fig. 13) In these instances (they recur several times in the film) the testimonies Hill and Thomas present adhere to the statements which the two made before the committee, but the setting of the reenactment shifts into an abstract space of mood and emotion. It is here we see Hill’s anguish, and Thomas most explicitly visualized as performing the victim he is claiming to be. (Fig. 14) One example will suffice to show how this abstract space of mood functions. In the film’s chronology, this is Thomas’s turn before the committee just before Hatch rises to his defense (while in fact, approximately 45 pages of transcript separate the two appearances). Thomas begins by saying

“unequivocally, uncategorically that I deny each and every single allegation against me today that suggested in any way that I had conversations of a sexual nature or about pornographic material with Anita Hill, that I ever attempted to date her, that I ever had any personal sexual interest in her, or that I in any way ever harassed her.” (Miller 117) (Fig. 15)

As he speaks, the chamber’s normal, hard, high-key lighting dims to spotlight Thomas’s upturned palms. (Fig. 16) Addressing a darkened chamber, he stands, approaches the committee table, and removes his shirt, leaving his tie around his neck. (Fig. 17) He continues,

 “I think something is dreadfully wrong with this country, when any person, any person in this free country would be subject to this. This is not a closed room."

“There was an FBI investigation. This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.” (Miller 117-8)

As Thomas describes the confirmation process as a way of lynching an uppity black, he lifts up the end of his necktie, turning it into a hangman’s noose, and the word “lynching” repeats in echo three times. (Fig. 18) Along with the shifts in lighting, costume, and action, these theatricalized adaptations of the transcript incorporate extreme, emphatic readings of the lines of testimony. As a result, the performances foregrounds the oldness of the “old order, and Thomas’s incredulity that this is being exposed publicly.

The film’s construction of these confrontations illuminates the interplay between public and private space. Strange Justice’s interaction of documentary and re-created material clarifies emphatically how the processes of spin compete to frame the roles of victim and victimizer. The Exorcist scene foregrounds Hatch’s advocacy by allowing his presence in documentary material to interact with re-created representations of disempowered response, while the theatricalization of Thomas’s testimony shows his assumption of the victim role explicitly as performance. Both interplays illustrate how the storyteller in the spotlight seizes the power of definition.

The film serves as a timely reminder of the consequences of the unprecedented conservative control of the media exercised to date by the current U.S. president, who has both put forward John Roberts, another possible “stealth” judge, as successor to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and will also have the opportunity to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Meanwhile the array of organizations, interest groups, and lobbyists ready, willing, and able to engage in the combat of spin and counterspin have become a matter of public record.[8] Strange Justice argues emphatically and explicitly that spin remains the weapon of choice in the holy war of politics. The warriors are storytellers in its view of this particular chapter of U.S. jurisprudery. It shows the campaign to nominate and confirm Thomas as a power play staged by storytellers, and shows how stories exert power when their claims, as well as their telling, not only write the script and cast the parts but also set the stage and occupy it exclusively.

(Continued: Notes)


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