At the conclusion of Freida Lee Mock’s 2014 documentary “Anita,” gender inequality crusader and Clarence Thomas accuser Anita Hill offers a glimpse at the bright future she’s long worked toward. “We really have been building on an understanding of what equality means, whether we fight to gender equality or racial equality or equal rights based on sexual identity,” Hill says. “We have a much better understanding of what it takes to get there in 2011 or 2012 than we had in 1991.” It’s an upbeat, forward-thinking end to a film often riddled with painful memories for both Hill and its audience.
Just four years later, that optimism has been replaced by an uneasy deja vu.
Next week, it’s expected that both Supreme Court appointee Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of sexual assault during their high school years, will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Now, Mock’s documentary takes on a new urgency, providing a window into what happened nearly three decades ago, and how little things have changed.
Mock’s film serves as an insightful account of the events surrounding Thomas’ 1991 appointment to the Supreme Court, the subsequent controversy surrounding Hill, and her post-testimony life. While the broad strokes of the Hill and Blasey cases are different — Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment when they worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, , while Blasey’s accusations stem from sexual assault at a high school party — the similarities are hard to ignore.
As “Anita” reminds us, Hill’s involvement in what would become a media spectacle and a national controversy, began much as Blasey’s did: with a letter detailing her experience, one she expected to be kept confidential. It wasn’t, and soon, Hill was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a televised interview that, as one of Mock’s talking heads admits, many people viewed as Hill herself being put on trial.
Questioned by an all-white male committee, subjected to questions that were so detailed as to be embarrassing, Hill had no idea that an entire opposition campaign would be formed simply to “shred her credibility.” She was just trying to share an experience she thought was pertinent to the appointment of Thomas. It’s an unsettling glimpse into what Blasey herself might expect, should she take the stand next week.
Both women took (and “passed”) polygraph tests, both women expected others to come forward with their own stories of harassment or assault, both women spawned “I believe” movements from supporters. Both women were subject to harassment and threats at home and at work, and both women were the subject of attempts to discredit them at every turn.
And, like many alleged victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, both Hill and Blasey have been blasted for not coming forward with their claims earlier. Considering how the world treated them when they did finally come forward — from attempts to get them fired to threats against the lives of their children — their reticence to sharing their stories may be the only understandable part of a history hellbent on circling back on itself.
Of course, Hill’s ordeal was punctuated by its own complexities, including the racial element (when he testified, Thomas notably blasted Hill’s claims as being part of a “high-tech lynching” that stemmed from centuries of sexualizing the bodies of black men) and the still-new concept of sexual harassment as a criminal act. And yet the reactions and the rhetoric remain much the same 27 years later.
Late in “Anita,” former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson muses over one of the biggest takeaways from the Hill controversy: The truth, whatever it was, and however it was mitigated in a government hearing, was somehow “unknowable.” However, we know that’s not true, because we’ve seen it all before.