Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991. Credit: Greg Gibson, AP Photo
Where were you in October 1991? I know where my daughter was. She was asleep in her car seat while my wife and I sat in our SUV during a weekend vacation, ears glued to NPR’s live coverage of Anita Hill’s testimony during the confirmation hearing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
“Anita-who?,” my now 24-year old daughter asked me the other day. “Clarence Thomas? Him?” she said, when recalling a few articles she may have researched about the Hill-Thomas episode while in college. If nothing else, the new documentary, Anita, will thrust this now celebrated author, law professor and women’s rights advocate back into the spotlight, and illuminate for an entire generation of young women the antediluvian attitudes toward sexual harassment that persisted a mere 20-some years ago.
Anita is not groundbreaking as a documentary, but Anita Hill the person was, even though the idea of becoming a cause célèbre was the farthest thing from her mind.
Anita opens with a recorded message that was left on Anita Hill’s home phone in 2010. Alert viewers will remember the minor kerfuffle surrounding this call; others will be taken by surprise. Either way it’s a jaw-dropping way to start a story that still has the power to provoke shock, anger and disbelief. While Hill, now an Oklahoma law professor, toiled as an assistant to Clarence Thomas at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she endured unwanted flirtations and outright sexual misconduct from the man who, a short time later, was tapped by President George H.W. Bush for a seat on the highest court in the land.
Hill had moved on by then. But driven by a fear that Thomas could end up judging future cases on gender equality and sexual harassment, she sent what she thought was a confidential statement about his inappropriate behavior to Congress. The letter was quickly leaked to the Senate hearing committee. So she donned the now famous blue dress, entered the hearing room and accused Thomas of repeated acts of sexual innuendo and unwanted advances before the 14-member, all-white, all-male committee of powerful, incredulous and eventually accusatory United States senators.
Those of us who watched or listened to her composed and electrifying testimony will remember the lurid details about pubic hairs and porn movies. One film's title, Long Dong Silver, became the punchline for countless late-night TV jokes. We’ll remember thinking that Senators would surely reject Thomas’s nomination. And then we’ll remember how their polite questions slowly morphed into accusations, and the nauseating realization that Anita Hill and her reputation were on trial.
And then the dramatic appearance by Clarence Thomas himself, with his infamous condemnation of the proceedings as a “high-tech lynching,” which sent the shame-faced, white-skinned jury into a pathetic recoil, obsequiously defending Thomas against Hill’s testimony. We all know how things ended up.
What we didn't know then — but do now, thanks to Anita Hill's candid, personable recounting of the events in Anita — is how daunted she was by the proceedings, how what she believed was her ethical duty to speak truth to power became an opportunity to humiliate her. Her 9-hour ordeal is shown here in riveting clips of her entering the hearing chambers, of the crush of press and specators, and the shots of her parents offering moving, unwavering support for their youngest (of 13 children).
Hill is the poised, brave center of the film, but she is ably supported by interviews with reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson (now executive editor of The New York Times), who talk about the more unseemly details of the case, and who co-wrote the book Strange Justice, about Hill's experiences; and by Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree and attorney John W. Carr, who analyzes Thomas's table-turning moment in the spotlight. We don't hear much in the way of dissenting opinions in Anita, except for that opening phone message which pretty much sums up the feelings of those who continue to call Hill a liar.
The movie, directed by Frieda Lee Mock, takes a fairly conventional approach, but the solid, unflashy treatment of the story serves as not only an important historical document but also an absorbing character study of a woman who reluctantly became a spokesperson for women’s rights. It’s a battle Hill still fights today, as an author and Brandeis University professor. While Justice Clarence Thomas has become famous for remaining silent during Supreme Court hearings, Anita Hill spends her time lecturing, listening and asking questions, especially of young women who, one hopes, will rush to see this film.
This review first appeared in The Restless Critic.