Whenever actor Wendell Pierce portrays a character on-stage or screen, he considers his roles teaching moments. The New Orleans native recently played Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the HBO docudrama Confirmation, reenacting the controversial 1991 Senate hearings for the second African-American elected to the high court.
Originally from Pin Point, GA, Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by Brandeis University law, policy and women’s studies professor Anita Hill, played by Emmy-nominated actress Kerry Washington (Scandal). Hill, a University of Oklahoma faculty member at the time of the hearings, testified before an all-white male Senate Judiciary Committee that her former supervisor at the U.S. Dept. of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) made inappropriate comments to her involving pornography, pubic hair and a Coca-Cola can.
The Thomas/Hill case signaled a redefining moment in American history, generating debates around race, gender and sexism. Human resources departments tightened up their policies, in many cases requiring employees to attend annual seminars. The ongoing reports gave birth to the 24-hour news cycle; more women were elected to Capitol Hill.
“The film is really about a time in our culture and history when we had this discussion for the first time,” says a cordial Pierce prior to Confirmation’s premiere during the 40th anniversary of the Atlanta Film Festival. “Before that time, people didn’t have those protections. There wasn’t a discussion around sexual harassment.”
A distinguished alumnus of Juilliard, Pierce, silent the bulk of his screen time throughout Confirmation, which was filmed in Atlanta, working in New York during the Thomas/Hill controversy. He faithfully watched the hearings everyday, referring to the rotating broadcasts as “fascinating yet painful.” “It was an amazing thing to see on television,” recalls the talented actor featured on HBO’s original programs The Wire, Strapped and Treme. “It was also very painful in the African-American community to see two established black folks at odds airing dirty laundry.”
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar, Dope), Confirmation’s ensemble cast includes Jeffrey Wright, Greg Kinnear, Erika Christensen, Jennifer Hudson, Eric Stonestreet and Bill Irwin. Based on a book by political analysts John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the teleplay was written by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and executive producer Susannah Grant. Washington, also an executive producer, and Famuyiwa contacted Pierce about playing Thomas.
Co-founding both a grocery store chain and a nonprofit responsible for erecting geothermal homes in his hometown, Pierce asserts that he doesn’t share the same political views as his character. He does admit to having preconceived notions about the Supreme Court Justice’s personality. On the other hand, Pierce, a Tony Award-winning thespian and Broadway producer, used his Southern origins as the common denominator to empathize with former President George Herbert Walker Bush’s nominee. “After awhile, I realized that it wasn’t how little we had in common,” he says, “but how much we have in common.”
“It was a challenge,” continues the actor whose film credits also include Ray, Get on the Bus and Waiting to Exhale. “Here is a man who’s been an enigma. He was being challenged and did whatever it took to go to the highest level of his career. If we never reflect on those issues, we are threatened and doomed to repeat the problems of the past.”
Pierce, who is currently in production in Atlanta on another feature, One Last Thing, co-starring actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell and working on the Odd Couple reboot, understands the importance of historical narratives having filmed five projects in Atlanta including Selma and The Vietnam War Story, a city ripe with historical narratives much like his hometown of New Orleans.
Pierce passionately discusses how Confirmation commemorates an important political and cultural moment in American history 25 years after the case was made public. Pierce, a stickler for studying his craft and advocate of constantly pushing boundaries, shares that he hopes to meet Thomas face-to-face in the near future. The opportunity to portray the legal eagle, he says, allowed him to further understand it’s not fair to judge any individual.
“Don’t assume that you know someone,” suggests Pierce, who authored his Image Award-nominated, post-Hurricane Katrina memoir, The Wind in the Reeds. “There’s a common thread in humanity that even though I may not agree with someone politically, I can find out who they are.”
Confirmation premiered on Saturday, April 16 at 8 p.m. EST on HBO. Check local listings for channel.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.