People don’t normally find themselves glued to the television watching the Senate Judiciary Committee conduct its business, but October 1991 was different.
When Anita Hill traveled from Oklahoma to Washington to testify that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her years earlier when he was her supervisor at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the country tuned in. Questioned by Joe Biden and Arlen Specter, Hill alleged that Thomas spoke explicitly about big-breasted women and pornography, not to mention the now-infamous Coke can pubic hair.
Never was C-SPAN so much like Cinemax.
Despite all the drama, Thomas went on to be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, but Hill moved on, too, and her actions spurred lasting change for how we deal with sexual harassment and workplace discrimination.
Freida Lee Mock, Oscar-winning director of “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” brings Hill’s story to the screen in a deftly edited retelling of the events. The film starts with the bizarre voicemail Thomas’ wife, Ginni, left Hill in 2010, asking her to recant her testimony. Hill has no intention of doing so, and Mock’s documentary casts no doubts on the veracity of Hill’s claims.
The first half of the movie is devoted to revisiting the hearings. Then, Hill was a law school professor at the University of Oklahoma, unaccustomed to the savage ways of Washington. She didn’t realize that when she was subpoenaed to testify, she would be confronted by an all-white, all-male panel, half of whom had politically motivated character assassination in mind.
It was a circus with too many memorable lines to fit into one “Saturday Night Live” sketch (although Chris Rock and Kevin Nealon tried). And the stakes were raised when Thomas compared Hill’s accusations to a “high-tech lynching” during his own testimony.
As Thomas ascended to the country’s highest court and Hill retreated to her no-longer-quiet Oklahoma existence, it seemed that Hill’s name might forever be linked to a humiliating trial in which she was forced to utter the phrase “Long Dong Silver.”
But “Anita” shows that Hill has become more than that. Now teaching at Brandeis University, she’s a feminist advocate with a strong fan base and a calendar full of speaking engagements. The reverberations of her testimony made a serious impact: No longer would men in high office be able to refer to such discrimination as “this sexual harassment crap,” as Sen. Alan K. Simpson did.
Mock’s biases are clear here, and her documentary does at times feel a bit too worshipful of its subject. The director secures plenty of interviewees to back up Hill, including journalists Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, who wrote “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas,” and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who served as Hill’s legal counsel in 1991. But the director glosses over “the other woman” who was prepared to testify and bolster Hill’s claims. We never meet her.
Still, the documentary remains a powerful time capsule. It’s a reminder of what we were and, thanks to Hill, how far we’ve come.
(At the Tivoli.)