Review: Anita Hill relates hearings in honest documentary
If the name Anita Hill means anything to you, you won’t need any encouragement to see a compelling documentary featuring this usually private woman talking with exceptional candor and insight about the events that made her an instant national figure. And if you can’t place the name, or want to know more, “Anita” is a splendid place to start.
It’s been more than 20 years since Hill, then a tenured law school professor at the University of Oklahoma, testified for nine grueling hours in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she said she experienced years before at the hands of then-Supreme Court nominee, now justice, Clarence Thomas.
Veteran documentary director Freida Mock (an Oscar winner for “Maya Lin: A Strong Vision”) takes us back to that particular moment as well as providing a contemporary analysis of how and why things played out the way they did.
In an age when sexual harassment, whether at work, in the military or at school, is the stuff of almost daily headlines, “Anita” reminds us of what the world was like before society was ready to acknowledge how pervasive and devastating those circumstances are. It also reminds us that it was Hill’s experiences that helped us understand the dynamics of the situation.
Hill was teaching in Oklahoma in 1991, the first tenured African-American professor at its law school, when she was contacted as part of the normal Supreme Court vetting process about Thomas, her former boss at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
When a statement she believed was confidential, detailing the harassment, was leaked to the news media, and when a reluctant Senate was pressured to take her testimony by enraged women serving in the House of Representatives, the stage was set for a piece of political theater that still has the power to make blood boil.
The youngest of 13 children born to a farming family, Hill said she was “raised to do what’s right.” She thought the committee was full of patriots who were genuinely interested in having the best possible person on the court. She soon learned differently.
Forced to recount in excruciating detail, and before a national TV audience, the sexual specifics of her story, Hill felt embarrassed and humiliated. Rather than Thomas’ suitability, it was her own credibility that became the issue.
In this atmosphere the presence of other women who came to Washington willing to testify to Thomas’ behavior but were not called, not to mention other witnesses who confirmed that Hill had complained to them about his actions, mattered not.
“She wanted it to be about truth, but it was about winning,” noted New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, who along with Jill Abramson, now the executive editor of The New York Times, wrote a book on Hill called “Strange Justice.” The perils of “Speaking Truth to Power” (the film’s subtitle) were never more evident.
It’s disturbing to hear Hill relate these experiences in her poised, articulate way, but heartening to discover the way she has moved on. She is now an author and a professor at Brandeis University who works on issues of gender equality.
In addition to the Hill interview, Mock has talked to other friends and supporters and even offers a glimpse of Hill’s private life with businessman Chuck Malone. What “Anita” does not offer is a platform for those who still believe that this woman made it all up. In truth, after spending this much time in her presence, not taking her side does not seem like the rational thing to do.