It’s been over two decades since the explosive 1991 hearings in which law professor Anita Hill discussed allegations of sexual misconduct by then U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. With the premiere of “Anita,” the new feature length documentary reflecting on those events, the question that continues to come up from audiences and press alike is, “Why tell this story now?”
When director Freida Lee Mock began filming in 2011, she was looking to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the hearings. But beyond the benchmark in American history, the film proves to be timely as it highlights issues surrounding sexual harassment that are very much alive today. The documentary is less about Thomas and the specific allegations than it is about the backlash that women in particular, and victimized people in general, face when they decide to stand against someone in a position of power. The film effectively takes us inside the assault on Anita Hill’s character by the judiciary committee, as well as the media and the public. In this current climate of victim blaming in cases ranging from the Steubenville rape trial to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, “Anita” is a powerful reminder of how we view those who allege wrongdoing, and how we tend to place far more heat and responsibility on the victim than the attacker.
Mock begins the film with a kindly voice on an answering machine. The message is for Ms. Hill, asking for “an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.” The infamous recording left in 2010 by Ginni Thomas, Clarence Thomas’ wife, is laughable, but sets the tone for how Hill is treated throughout her testimony. From the beginning, it’s clear that Hill, not Thomas, is the one who’s on trial.
The film is framed around footage from the hearings, in which Hill was questioned by a Senate judiciary panel of 14 white men with seemingly little understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace. Scenes of Hill having to explain, and re-explain, Thomas’ sexually explicit talk in excruciating detail are punctuated by news footage of various pundits weighing in on the situation. Why did she wait so long to report Thomas’ behavior? What might she have done to provoke it? And what could she stand to gain by lying about the allegations?
The answer, as it turns out, is very little. Candid interviews with Hill and her supporters, including journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, shed light on what was happening behind the scenes – the hostile Republicans on the committee trying to protect Pres. Bush’s nominee, the Democrats, including Ted Kennedy and Committee Chair Joe Biden, afraid to challenge Thomas as a black conservative, and the public grappling for a definition of workplace sexual harassment and an effective process to deal with it.
Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, the only black male member of Hill’s legal team, also explains the backlash from black men who felt betrayed by what they saw as a woman publicly attacking a successful member of the community. Effectively, it turns out to be Thomas, not Hill, who uses race to his advantage. (Who can forget his comment about the hearings being a “high tech lynching for uppity blacks”?) With Thomas and his supporters seen only in archival footage, the film stands firmly on the side of Hill. And it’s hard not to, viewing it from a modern lens with what we now know about sexual harassment. Hill pays an incredible price for not keeping silent – her career is derailed, her life and family threatened, her sense of security and privacy shaken.
But ultimately, “Anita” is a story of resilience, as Mock spends some time detailing Hill’s life after the fated hearings. With Thomas’ eventual confirmation to the Supreme Court, we could easily think the struggle and humiliation that Hill faced was for naught. But Mock continues to follow her triumphant return to her home state of Oklahoma and catch up with her work as a professor and activist. It’s here that the film’s theme resonates best, as we learn about the longterm impact of the hearings and Hill’s influence on a new generation.
With superior tech aspects and a powerful theme, “Anita” is highly recommended viewing. It’s also relevant, allowing us a marker to see just how far we’ve come in our understanding of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and how far we still have to go in our attitudes towards victims.
“Anita” is now streaming on Netflix.