Documentary Recalls One of America’s Biggest Political Scandals & The Woman Who Survived It
To this day, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is best remembered by many, particularly blacks, not for the decisions he has made on the highest court in the land, but for the senate hearing he characterized as a “high tech lynching for uppity blacks” and the woman who stood squarely in the middle of it—Anita Hill.
In the more than two decades since Hill has—depending on who’s being asked— been characterized as either the woman who nearly derailed a Supreme Court nomination or an iconic name in the sphere of sexual misconduct lawsuits.
Truth is, after the 1991 testimony in a senate hearing that, unlike others, was nothing short of sensational and riveted the nation, sexual harassment cases more than doubled in number.
Now, “Anita,” a new documentary directed and written by Academy Award-winning Freida Lee Mock, tells Hill’s story of the traumatic aftermath of Thomas’s abuse, as Hill endured one of the most publicized and humiliating trials in history—but with it, brought about a new public awareness to the issue of sexual assault in the professional world.
“I am a believer that after the testimony, there were a lot of women who got engaged in the process,” Hill, now 57 and teaching law at Brandeis University, said. “There were public and private conversations. And people learned. Mothers talked to their daughters, daughters talked to their fathers about what it was like to be a woman out on her own.”
The documentary, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last October, focuses both on the famous trial and Anita Hill’s personal life surrounding the event.
“The heart of the movie is a deeply personal family story about Anita and the Hill family,” Mock, the director, says. “It’s a typical American story about working hard and providing for your family, but it’s also about a quintessentially African-American family whose journey mirrors that of the history of African Americans — from slavery to freedom, through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and forward.”
Hill’s story is particularly inspiring—and harrowing—because of the widely publicized trial that ushered her into the public eye. The sexual harassment Hill had witnessed and endured from Thomas had been an ordeal in and of itself, but it was the testimony Hill gave in front of a live-televised court hearing, which was being watched by over 20 million homes across America, that offered the true testament to Hill’s tenacity and strength, as she told the truth—sometimes in excruciating detail when asked—about what happened to her during her work with Thomas.
“I knew what I had to do,” she said. “My purpose was to as clearly as possible tell the senate about the behaviors I had experienced at the hands of Clarence Thomas.”
In her now famous testimony, Hill told the all white, all male judiciary committee, “It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experiences, I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.”
The judicial committee, instead of applauding and recognizing Hill’s bravery for telling the truth about her traumatic relationship with Thomas, scrutinized and questioned Hill to an unnecessary length, looking to poke holes in her story instead of investigating Thomas’ potential as a Supreme Court Justice. And as Republicans demonized her and Democrats hung her out to dry, she stood alone.
As Hill tried to shine a light on Thomas’ credibility as an employer, her words were instead twisted around and mocked, and used as tools to humiliate and intimidate her. Anita Hill, who in retrospect is credited for helping usher in “The Year of Women” in 1992 (during which four women were elected into the Senate and twenty-four were elected into the House of Representatives) was instead widely discredited as a “scorned woman.”
“The issue became my character,” Hill says in the documentary. “I was on trial.”
In court, she was forced to recount in unnecessarily specific detail different stories of Thomas’s lewd sexual misconduct, and the other women who had come to offer there testimonies to back up Hill’s claims weren’t even called to the stands. The all white, and all male judiciary committee, after a long confirmation hearing, confirmed Thomas into his seat with the narrowest scores in a century: 48-52.
Since the trial, David Brock, who wrote a book called “The Real Anita Hill,” which slandered her character and credibility, has rescinded his statements, and issued an apology to Hill, wh 'I demonized Democratic senators, their staffs, and Hill's feminist supporters without ever interviewing any of them,” and that his main goal had been to “'blacken her name, just as I had done to every other woman who had impugned Thomas's reputation.”
Hill hopes the documentary will not only remind everyone of how far we have come as a country when it comes to recognizing and handling allegations of sexual misconduct in the work place, but to further her original point—don’t be afraid to come forward.
“The documentary really is a reminder that in fact it has been 23 years,” Hill said. “I am aware that we have a whole generation people who are left, who have been born since the hearings, gone into college, into the military—an these issues continue. A new generation is facing them. We need to come to terms with our past so we can learn and move forward.”
Mock, the documentary’s director, learned a lot before embarking upon the project, but continued learning about the case even as it was being filmed.
“I’m beginning to understand that what Anita testified to that fateful day, October 11, 1991, struck a deep, resonant chord in many that erupts in a near love fest when they see how the rest of Anita’s story unfolded. It’s not what I set out to do. It’s simply how Anita, no longer frozen in time in that iconic blue dress and now contextualized in time and place, comes across in the movie — a fabulous, great, fun person.
"As long as I believe that we can make things better and that this movie can help, I'm not going to stop.”
“One woman, stepping into a mess of political, racial, and sexual power plays…makes for a rapt viewing,” Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, said of the film.
Hill found comfort and strength in the impact of the hearings and the thousands of letters she received in the aftermath of that painful time.
Looking back two years ago, she told USA Today, "Twenty years ago I might have thought myself powerless, now I feel differently," said Hill, 55. "I now know that one voice can make a difference. So now the question is how do I use my voice to make a difference not only in my life, but in the lives of others?"
“Anita” is now playing in select Los Angeles theaters.