– A quarter century ago, after a law professor’s accusations of sexual harassment turned a Su­preme Court nomination into daytime TV’s most compelling soap, the sitcom “Designing Women” aired an episode titled “The Strange Case of Clarence and Anita.” The show’s most dedicated feminist unveiled a T-shirt that read “He Did It.” Her political frenemy countered with one emblazoned “She Lied.”

Those fictional characters may have had an easy time picking sides, but for many of the 50 million Americans who sat slack-jawed through the 1991 televised battle between Anita Hill and her former boss, future Justice Clarence Thomas, allegiances weren’t so cut and dried.

Like FX’s recent miniseries “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the HBO film “Confirmation,” premiering April 16, is more interested in examining our tendency to squirm through social issues than engage in a celebrity edition of “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.”

The testimony is riveting, but more revealing is how the Washington press corps and U.S. senators kept poking their fingers in the air to see which way the wind was blowing, only to gather soot. Unlike the current debate over whether Judge Merrick Garland should get his day in Congress, the war back then wasn’t between political parties but, rather, men and women — a division that dates to Adam and Eve arguing over whose choice it was to serve apple as an afternoon snack.

“I think the assumption is that the movie is about ‘Who’s telling the truth?’ ‘Who did you believe?’ ” said Kerry Washington, who plays Hill. “That’s a very provocative question, but one of the things we learned is that when you pull back the curtain, the story is way more complicated than he said/she said.”

Playing Hill, Washington altered her posture just enough to appear a full 2 inches shorter than her ninja-warrior fixer on “Scandal” and resisted any urges to tap her inner rabble rouser, despite rant-bait dialogue by “Erin Brockovich” screenwriter Susannah Grant. Instead, the actress expresses strength through quiet determination and fierce intelligence, letting her calculated pauses do the talking. Those who dare to cross her had better bring their A game — and their law books.

“Susannah really worked hard to make sure these were complicated, three-dimensional, vulnerable human beings and not kind of fulfill our idea of who somebody is,” Washington said.

As Clarence Thomas, actor Wendell Pierce drew a more difficult assignment. Thomas gets less screen time and, in one of his few moments in the spotlight, snaps at his wife, who is naturally thrown by allegations that her hubby is an aficionado of pornography and engaged in office banter that would make a high school football player blush.

Pierce’s performance is guided by seething indignation, fueled not only by the potential career-killing charges but by Thomas’ impoverished childhood and daily indignities such as not being able to get a taxi during rush hour. The re-creation of the hearing’s most rewound moment, when Thomas compared his situation to being targeted by a high-tech lynch mob, is a lesson in understated acting.

The portrayal is all the more remarkable considering that Pierce himself may have been in Hill’s camp.

“I had to check my own prejudices about who he was,” said Pierce, best known for playing a cop’s most reliable wing man in the HBO series “The Wire.” “As I studied his life, I realized how much we had in common and that the only way I was going to be able to play the man was to be authentic and true to his experience.

“The situation gives you a wealth of things to play: ‘What did I do? Do I even remember it?’ I think that’s something we can all understand. I can’t think of him as a political figure. I thought of him as a man about to lose the greatest opportunity he ever had.”

The shape of things to come

Despite Pierce’s best efforts, the film ultimately tilts in Hill’s direction. (Washington served as an executive producer, and Grant’s screenplay was inspired by the pro-Hill documentary “Anita.”)

But if you still don’t understand the mission of “Confirmation,” stick around for the end. Thomas’ narrow victory and Hill’s retreat into the shadows is swept aside for a series of on-screen observations that materialized in the hearing’s wake, most notably the dramatic increase in the number of women elected to Congress and the doubling of sexual-harassment cases filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Think about how much changed, about how we were all transformed by these events in terms of our language around victims’ rights, around how we think of the workplace, how we think about women, race, power,” Washington said. “I’m a person who tends to be more inspired than cynical, so that’s my takeaway.”

We may never know who was telling the truth, but there’s no denying the ramifications, too deep and wide to fit on a T-shirt.

 

njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin