Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, a beautiful new documentary by Academy Award-winning director Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision), is a history lesson for some audiences and a site of memory for others.
Millennial girls and women who didn’t witness firsthand the spectacle of sex and race during the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court get to bear witness to Anita Hill’s testimony, an act that changed American perceptions of workplace sexual harassment. Even those of us who watched the drama unfold on our television sets–those for whom the blue-suited black woman seated alone and facing a panel of white men is imprinted in our memory–get a different perspective on the trial and its aftermath in Mock’s film. Significantly, Mock’s film reveals the woman behind the icon.
The film opens with the voicemail message Ginni Thomas, the justice’s wife, left in 2010, advising Hill to “consider an apology” for what she’d done to Clarence Thomas. We watch Hill play that peculiar message in her office at Brandeis University (where she’s senior advisor to the provost and professor of social policy, law and women’s studies) before the film revisits the events that unfolded in 1991. That’s when Hill wanted to write a letter in “her own words” about Thomas’ inappropriate behavior when he was her boss. That letter, which was leaked to the media, rerouted Hill’s life on an unexpected course.
Mock’s film moves between footage from the hearings and present-day commentary from Hill and longtime supporters, including Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, authors of Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, and Hill’s former lawyer, Harvard professor Charles Ogletree. The film replays the image of Hill with which we are most familiar: a poised woman who maintains her calm and dignity even as she is compelled to respond to questions about pornography and pubic hair. We also see Thomas accuse the Senate committee of a “high-tech lynching,” and with that racially laden metaphor assume the role of victim.
Far less familiar to viewers are the scenes of Hill’s life after the hearings. Some of the most powerful moments of the film are the glimpses into her close-knit family. After Hill returns to Oklahoma, hoping to resume her “normal” life as a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, she is met with threats to her life and her livelihood as politicians try to push her out of her job. Watching her family support her through that turbulent period gives insight into the environment that nurtured Hill: grandparents who migrated to Oklahoma after the real threat of lynching, and parents who trained their 13 children to respond to racial discrimination by being “twice as good” as their white counterparts. Hill says her parents also raised her and her siblings to “do what’s right.” It was that foundation that encouraged her to speak then, and to continue speaking now.
Though Anita recounts events that happened over 20 years ago, the documentary resonates in our contemporary moment. Mock dedicates the latter portion of the film to the the current generation of feminist activists. She includes footage from “Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later,” a daylong conference held at New York City’s Hunter College in 2011 that assembled women and men across generations and races. The documentary also features organizers and members from Girls For Gender Equity conducting a training session about the ways that sexual harassment impacts girls today. At the Q & A after the film screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, Hill reiterated the film’s significance in our time: “Twenty-two years later, we know it’s [sexual harassment] still a problem. I think it’s time to start that conversation again.”
While Hill’s voice remains integral to these conversations, it is accompanied by a chorus of others, many of whom can speak their truths because she spoke hers. Hill mentioned in the film and in the Q & A that after the hearing she had planned to devote two years to speaking about sexual harassment. That was until she understood that her work had a purpose beyond that singular event. That purpose has materialized in the faces of girls who insist on being treated with dignity and respect. Hill says that, should she retire now, she knows the fight is in good hands.
Jennifer Williams is an assistant professor of English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She is at work on a collection of essays on feminism, race and culture in the 21st century.