The take-away from "Anita," Frieda Mock’s new documentary about Anita Hill, the uniformly Caucasian men of the Senate Judiciary Committee of men who, in October of 1991, quizzed her about her response to a background check regarding then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and the ongoing dialogue about workplace sexual and gender dynamics that her testimony sparked, is that more than two decades later the world is a little bit better for women and girls who possess talent and drive -- and Hill’s courageous stand in telling her story as she experienced it is a prime mover in that watershed change.
The doc begins with a message left for Hill in 2010 by the wife of Clarence Thomas, Ginny, who invites Hill to "to consider an apology sometime, and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband." The message -- which only served to breathe new life onto the still-glowing embers of the controversy -- jabbers on briefly before ending with, "Okay -- have a good day."
That, thankfully, is the last we hear of Ginny Thomas. Her husband Clarence -- who, of course, cynically and farcically complained that the hearing was a "high-tech lynching," denied everything, and went on to ascend to the bench of the Supreme Court, where he’s seemingly more or less checked out for the past two decades and change -- does appear in archival footage, briefly, and about the only credible thing he has to say is that the hearing is "a national disgrace." That’s true, but not for the reasons he’d have us believe.
But Mock refuses to get sidetracked. The film stays on topic, and the topic is Anita Hill. Who is she? What did she have to gain from the testimony she offered? What’s her life been like since 1991?
The answers: She had nothing to gain from her testimony, and everything to lose, but she offered it anyway. She’s a brilliant and accomplished woman who says that she was subjected to the filthiest sexual fantasies and insinuations a woman can endure, and the perpetrator was her boss. The irony was that her boss was, at the time, the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and that Hill herself was a professor of law with a deep understanding of civil rights issues. That’s a seeming disconnect that was forged at the time into a cudgel by skeptical white politicians ("Are you a woman scorned?" one committee member asked Hill), but now it informs the film as to the depth and breadth of the ethical rot that permeated the culture when it came to women in the workplace.
Further, that irony speaks volumes -- as does the archival footage of the hearing -- about how ill-informed and unconscious of their own prejudices those powerful men actually were. Seeing them rub Hill’s face repeatedly in the filth of Thomas’ alleged overtures, the modern viewer is struck by the thought that Hill is just about the only decent person in the room.
Anita Hill’s testimony and Clarence Thomas’ denials have taken on the kind of stature in the public consciousness that few other conspiracy narratives have attained. They have also achieved the sort of hardened calcification that ensures that those who have strong opinions on the matter are not going to have their minds changed by this film. No, I do not exclude myself from this assessment: I didn’t believe Thomas’ rebuttals (if you can call them that) at the time, and I don’t believe Thomas now. Mock’s film, too, has an opinion: Nowhere does Mock offer a modern alternative. It would be too much to hope for today’s Clarence Thomas to agree to appear here, but surely Mock could have dredged up at least one right-winger who accepts and would defend Thomas’ denials and the assertions he made in his 2007 autobiography -- memorable claims that Hill was, essentially, a godless liberal out to get him.
But if you can’t say this documentary is completely objective, you can say this: The very same questions that were objectively relevant then remain so now. What would Hill have had to gain from offering false testimony against Thomas? Why were the four witnesses she produced more or less shrugged off?
The film raises new questions, as well. How did the state lawmakers, all Republicans, who subsequently sought to get Hill fired from her tenured position at the Oklahoma State University law school justify that action? For that matter, how did they justify attempting to fire the dean of Hill’s department when their pressure yielded no result -- or the extreme measure of attempting to shut down the law school as a whole? Have we as a nation (and, more particularly, the mostly white men who comprise and run the GOP) moved substantially past attitudes like that of Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, who, on record, dismissed Hill’s testimony as "sexual harassment crap" -- not to mention the plainly cruel, deliberately humiliating tack the panel took in asking Hill again and again to offer up detailed, embarrassing details about the things she related that Thomas did and said?
Some of the harassment Hill details allegedly took place when Hill was working for Thomas at the Department of Education years earlier. Asked how she could have worked for him at the EEOC after her first experience as his underling, Hill, in the archival footage, offers no compelling answer; but now, able to articulate herself to a better-informed audience, Hill lays it out. "At the time that I went to the EEOC, the behavior had stopped -- and that’s all that I wanted." Hill and others who speak to Mock, explain more fully: Back then, a woman wasn’t taken seriously when she lodged such complaints, and to succeed professionally (or even survive financially) she was likely to have to work with, and for, people she didn’t like -- perhaps even people whose conduct toward her was contemptible.
Hill’s journey has seemingly educated her much as she wished the men on the SJC had been educated. "The more I understood about sexual harassment," she tells Mock’s camera at one point, "the more I understood that it was only part of the problem." As a result, Hill wrote a book and became an engaged participant in attempting to solve the problem.
Hill’s work reaches past immediate concerns of America’s working women and touches on those who support and love them. "I do hear from a lot of men," Hill says at one point, going on to explain that today’s much more aware fathers don’t want to see their smart, ambitious daughters targeted by predatory bosses and colleagues. The fact that her own father went to Oklahoma to escape the threat of being lynched by hostile whites makes Thomas’ infamous characterization of the hearings as a "high-tech lynching" even more odious -- as noxious, indeed, as any of his other fantasies.