New documentary Anita: Speaking Truth to Power is an insightful portrait, not a revolution.
The proceedings of the infamous Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Senate hearings in 1991 perhaps felt like a revolution at the time. A black woman challenged her boss’s bad behavior on a national stage and made sexual harassment part of our national conversation. On film over 20 years later, the entire episode feels like a relevant counter-point to “leaning in.” The professional world, the documentary reminds us, isn’t a cute place to be a woman. Anita Hill had to act against the interest of her career to do what she knew was right. Instead of leaning in, she called out her boss. For that, she’s earned both immense respect and scorn.
Even now, in the old footage, the skepticism of the all-white, all-male Senate committee is palpable as they go about the work of determining whether Supreme Court Justice Thomas sexually harassed Anita Hill. I felt the gulf between the Senate committee and Anita Hill herself. I felt the tension of the stony crowd taking in the proceedings and the anger of the viewing public.
Director Freida Lee Mock is an American filmmaker who is committed to biography as a route to improve our national ethics—she makes complex U.S. social issues succinct, sequential, and powerful. She is also the director of the Oscar-winning documentary Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994) and Anita skillfully incorporates footage from the Senate hearings, as well as new interviews and footage of Hill’s more current work as a speaker and professor.
Much of the first half of the documentary is a recap of the 1991 hearings, while the second half is a look at Hill’s family and work. Even as Anita brings into focus Hill’s work, it only scrapes the surface of the impressive books she’s published, like Speaking Truth to Power (1998) and the collection of essays she co-edited, Race, Gender, and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill-Thomas Hearings (1995).
Along the way, the film crystalizes the exhaustion of making change. This isn’t a film only about sexual harassment—it’s about law and government. Originally suspicious of the Senate process, Hill’s testimony at the hearing shows that working to transform law and the government will wear you down. The prominence that Hill’s family and her discussion of work-life balance took in this documentary came as unexpected territory for Freida Lee Mock. “At the outset, what I didn’t realize and do now is that the heart of the movie is a deeply personal family story about Anita and the Hill family,” Mock wrote on xoJane. “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.”
The Hill-Thomas case was important in part because we saw how the law actually worked in interaction with workplace problems. Hill put her reputation on the line and started a national conversation around sexual harassment—the Senate appointed Justice Thomas was anyway. Despite that disappointment, in a recent online chat about the film, Hill advocated for the power of changing our culture through the courts. She pointed to the need to legally go after companies with unethical practices, like WalMart. “I think the most important issue in terms of equality that's working its way through the courts is the extent to which we can pursue class action lawsuit,” she wrote. “The litigation that allows only one person to sue can be effective but what we really need to make sure is that we address systemic discrimination.”
The question is often still couched in whether or not we “believe” Anita, and for that, we’re wrong. So often, people describe her stature, grace, and composure. It feels like, “Whoa, here’s a calm black woman.” It’s akin to when Joe Biden called Obama “articulate,” the ultimate liberal no-no, sifted straight from a Boondocks episode.
In contrast, in Anita Hill is constructed as actually a bit of a rock star—someone who has put in exhausting hours and gone through unbelievable turmoil, but is now in a positive, successful place. Barbara Walters calls her “our heroine.” Mock called her a “rock star” on xoJane. This feel-good narrative is an important part of the story of a woman who has been pilloried, writes Mock. “I think to the public, especially women, who saw Anita go through a wrenching experience in 1991, they are relieved to know she has a normal, good life.”
Anita ends with a clear accent on what sexual harassment looks like. The documentary draws on present-day anti-harassment groups like Girls for Gender Equity and Hollaback! to show that Anita Hill is not alone. But then, as now, the question lingers: what does justice look like? Justice Clarence Thomas is still on the bench. Joe Biden, who reporters see as responsible for not asking key witnesses to discuss Hill’s allegations, is now Vice President. The world churns on.
Despite that it’s been over two decades, the documentary consciously attempts to take a nuanced look at the alluring “look how far we’ve come” trope. The documentary doesn’t necessarily break new ground, but that’s okay; Anita gives us the feeling that Hill already did.
Watch the trailer for Anita:
Tiana Reid is a writer living in New York and tweeting at @tianareid.