‘Anita’ revisits sexual harassment spectacle

Los Angeles TimesMay 23, 2014 

Anita Hill testifies in October 1991 before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

GREG GIBSON/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE, 1991

If the name Anita Hill means anything at all to you, you won’t need any encouragement to see a compelling documentary featuring this usually private woman talking with exceptional candor and insight about the events that made her a national figure.

And if you can’t place the name, or want to know more, “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power” is a splendid place to start.

It’s been more than 20 years since Hill, then a tenured law school professor at the University of Oklahoma, testified for nine grueling hours in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she said she experienced years before at the hands of then-Supreme Court nominee, now Justice, Clarence Thomas.

Veteran documentary director Freida Mock (an Oscar winner for “Maya Lin: A Strong Vision”) takes us back to that particular moment and provides a contemporary analysis of how and why things played out the way they did.

In an age when sexual harassment, whether at work, in the military or at school, is the stuff of almost-daily headlines, “Anita” reminds us of what the world was like before society was ready to acknowledge how pervasive and devastating those incidents are. It also reminds us that it was Hill’s experiences that helped us understand the dynamics of the situation.

Hill was teaching in Oklahoma in 1991, the first tenured African-American professor at its law school, when she was contacted as part of the normal Supreme Court vetting process about Thomas, her former boss at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

When a statement she believed was confidential, detailing the harassment, was leaked to the news media, and when a reluctant Senate was pressured to take her testimony by enraged women serving in the House of Representatives, the stage was set for a piece of political theater that still has the power to make your blood boil.

The youngest of 13 children born to a farming family, Hill said she was “raised to do what’s right.” She thought the committee was full of patriots who were genuinely interested in having the best possible person on the court. She soon learned differently.

Forced to recount in excruciating detail, and before a national TV audience, the sexual specifics of her story, Hill felt embarrassed and humiliated. Rather than Thomas’ suitability, it was her own credibility that became the issue.

In this atmosphere the presence of other women who came to Washington willing to testify to Thomas’ behavior but were not called, not to mention other witnesses who confirmed that Hill had complained to them about his actions, mattered not.

“She wanted it to be about truth, but it was about winning,” noted New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, who along with Jill Abramson, the now-former executive editor of The New York Times, wrote a book on Hill called “Strange Justice.” The Perils of “Speaking Truth to Power” were never more evident.

It’s disturbing to hear Hill relate these experiences in her poised, articulate way, but heartening to discover the way she has moved on. She is now an author and a professor at Brandeis University who works on issues of gender equality.

In addition to the Hill interview, Mock has talked to other friends and supporters and even offers a glimpse of Hill’s private life with businessman Chuck Malone. What “Anita” does not offer is a platform for those who still believe that this woman made it all up. In truth, after spending this much time in her presence, not taking her side does not seem like the rational thing to do.

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power

* * * *

Director: Freida Mock

Running time: 1:17

Rated: No MPAA rating

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service