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'Strange Justice' gives complex view of history

Sunday, August 29, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

You want strange?

How about a sympathetic portrayal of both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill in Showtime's "Strange Justice," premiering tonight at 8.

There's no question the film concludes Hill (Regina Taylor) was a victim of harassment by Thomas (Delroy Lindo), but both are shown to be pawns of a political system gone amuck in this film from director Ernest Dickerson.

"Strange Justice" takes viewers behind the scenes at the 1991 nomination hearings that put Thomas on the Supreme Court. Mandy Patinkin plays Kenneth Duberstein, a Washington lobbyist enlisted by George Bush's White House to secure Thomas' confirmation.

While the outcome is known, new light is shed on the process in a script by Jacob Epstein based on the National Book Award finalist of the same name.

"Strange Justice" shows politicians trading votes and keeping score on a grand theatrical scale. In a recent interview with TV critics, Patinkin said he agreed to appear in the film to illustrate how the truth gets spun and packaged.

  TV REVIEW: 'Strange Justice'

When: 8 tonight on Showtime.

Starring: Delroy Lindo, Mandy Patinkin, Regina Taylor.


"This film is a metaphor for the way we manipulate the truth and how what is expressed is delivered by the media through the expression of spin doctors and the agreement of political figures involved," Patinkin said. "They're all in agreement, and it is, to me, the new balance of justice."

On that level alone "Strange Justice" succeeds.

While this film doesn't do much to explore the characters of Thomas and Hill - neither cooperated with the book's authors or the moviemakers - the motivations of many nameless politicos are clear.

When the Hill allegations surface, Duberstein tells Thomas, "Don't get mad, don't get even, get confirmed."

An adviser to the Hill camp says Sen. Arlen Specter "is actually pretty responsible on women's issues, unfortunately he's a vain little p----, and if he gets a chance to play prosecutor it'll be all about winning and he'll be at your throat the whole time."

A member of the Thomas camp says of Hill, "My people tell me she's a radical lesbian."

Everyone had an agenda and it's never hidden, but what's most disturbing is how the players jockey for position at the expense of the citizens they've been elected to serve. A hospitalized woman delays surgery so she can testify on Hill's behalf, but she keeps getting put off. Another Hill supporter gets her statements added to the public record, but she's not allowed to testify.

Director Dickerson, Spike Lee's cinematographer before helming films himself, distinguishes "Strange Justice" from what could be a bland "true story." Dickerson films testimony by Hill and Thomas by back lighting the Judiciary Committee members, making them faceless inquisitors in a futuristic star chamber.

During these same scenes Dickerson has Hill screaming and Thomas ripping off his shirt before decrying the proceedings as a "high-tech lynching." It's effective dramatic license.

Other choices are less clear. In one scene, music plays ominously as cream gets poured into a cup of coffee. Was this meant to be some sort of symbolism for race, which played as much a role in the saga as gender politics?

Another memorable scene involves Thomas praying with Sen. Danforth (Stephen Young) before they march down Capitol corridors to the swelling strains of "Onward Christian Soldiers." As commentary on the abuse of religious ideology by politicians, it works, but the unintended effect may be to denigrate Christianity in the eyes of some viewers.

Patinkin is focused as always, playing Duberstein with gusto marked by his love of the game. To him Thomas' confirmation is not about politics, it's about doing a job. Mercifully, Duberstein does not break into song as Patinkin frequently does on "Chicago Hope."

Taylor made her acting mark during the real-life Thomas-Hill bout when she starred in NBC's early '90s series "I'll Fly Away." It's unfortunate she hasn't found a role in a TV series that makes use of her talent for playing strong, but wounded, characters. She's a natural for Hill.

As Thomas, Lindo portrays the judge as a dogged achiever who feels violated by media scrutiny and political machinations. But he's given little to work with about the judge's background. As much as this is the story of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Duberstein is a more fully developed character.

The Hill-Thomas story echoes the recent Clinton impeachment with Vernon Jordan (Lou Gossett Jr.) condescending to Thomas at a country club. In another scene, a Duberstein associate says she heard from an intern at ABC news that President Bush was going to pull Thomas' nomination.

"Do not believe anything you ever hear from interns, OK?" Duberstein lectures. "We only listen to salaried employees here in Washington."

Seven years later Duberstein was proved wrong, of course, but the political parties still attempt to one-up each other only to reach a perpetual stalemate.

Thomas got confirmed, Clinton got away with perjury. We're a lesser nation for both, but at least TV is better for "Strange Justice," an insiders' look at politics as usual.

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