Anita Hill documentary recalls past for present gender equity fight

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In 1991, when Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court, Anita Hill sent a report to the FBI alleging he had sexually harassed her when they worked together at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When that report became public, it blew up into a media frenzy that helped define for the nation what the term “sexual harassment” meant and what damage it could do to high-profile careers. Although it is commonly understood now that repeatedly asking someone out at work or constantly discussing pornography in the office is unacceptable, women were expected to expect it and tolerate it until this case came to the national stage and defined this behavior for a generation. However, it was for our generation that the documentary “Anita” was made: those of us who are not old enough to remember or fully understand what professor Hill went through for the cause of sexual harassment in the workplace.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, director Freida Mock discussed the limits of a documentary that undertakes to explain and contextualize a crystalline moment in history. “The heart of the story that I wanted to tell was the story of Anita Hill,” Mock said. “She changed the course of history, but we didn’t know anything about her.”

“Anita” seeks to remedy that. The first half of the film relies heavily on the footage of the Senate hearing that was the focus of the news cycle for months in 1991. From there, the film segues into interviews with friends and colleagues of Hill and finally comes to the woman herself.

The documentary opens on that panel of white men interrogating a lone black woman for nine humiliating hours 22 years ago. The press at the time noted that Hill was incredibly calm and poised throughout, unruffled by the nature of the story she had to tell. In “Anita,” she exudes that same calm recalling those pivotal days. Mock addressed that still-present poise that Hill radiates on screen. “I hope to avoid lecturing in my films and let the story show it. I think you can see the expectations of her parents, high expectations within the limitations of Jim Crow.”

Hill was born in Oklahoma after her family had fled Arkansas after a lynching threat. Despite this harrowing origin, the family flourished. Hill was the youngest of 13 children, most of whom served in the military or attended college or both. Mock explores this background with Hill and says of her parents’ devotion, “They had what you can’t buy, what no privileged parentless person has.”

The film steers clear of several possible quagmires. By focusing on Hill’s life and point of view, Supreme Court Justice and accused sexual harasser Clarence Thomas receives very little screen time. Aside from his incendiary speech calling the process of this hearing a “high-tech lynch mob,” his appearance in the film is minimal. Hill plays a cryptic voicemail from Thomas’ wife, Virginia, for the camera, but no speculation is made about Thomas’ intention in reaching out to Hill after all this time. When asked whether she considered interviewing the still-living members of the committee about their involvement in that hearing, Mock was frank.

“I thought about it,” she said. “Should we get Joe Biden? I couldn’t get Joe Biden; the 2012 election was in full swing when I was making this film. Those I could have spoken to — they’re still political figures. They wouldn’t say they were sorry. It’s still a political game; would they want to confront their own history? Would they back down, would they mea culpa? Would I get a deathbed confession?” Mock also chose to limit the exposure of the women who were subpoenaed to speak on Hill’s behalf but were never called to speak.

Mock was most surprised by the facts that make up with the most shocking moments in the film. “She faced years of vitriol and threats … just a public flogging.” The documentary follows Hill into the basement of her Massachusetts home, where she archives letters and packages she has received since 1991. There are several rows of file cabinets. Public outcry eventually forced Hill out of her tenured position in Oklahoma, after which she spent a brief stint as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley.

Weighing the worth of this story for a generation that cannot remember this moment of bewilderment, controversy and shame in American politics, Mock had this to offer: “Anita speaks to a generation that she knows consumes knowledge from media. We wanted you all to know the story and to realize that in the workforce, the military, grad school — is that when harassment happens, you have recourse, and you do speak out. Women kept it quiet, in the old days. What (Hill) did in 1991 was to give voice to the experience of millions of women and men, to inspire them to protect their rights.”

Mock connected Hill’s bravery in making her original statement about Thomas to the current Title IX lawsuit against UC Berkeley and other colleges. “Title IX is a strategic and smart way of affecting institutional reform, just like the change in sexual harassment. Sexual assault in the military — something that you don’t think happens. You aren’t as alone as your grandparents or your mother before 1991. It took the media and the activism of women to force and open hearing. If it happened now, in the age of the Internet — it’d be out in the open.”

“Anita” is a moving and focused documentary and brings us the truth of the woman who changed the course of history. If you don’t know her story, now is the time to seek it out.  It humanizes a political figure and gender equity pioneer and reminds Americans that much of what we take for granted is really only recent progress. It serves chilling notice that most of our rights were not granted but won at terrible cost for people like Anita Hill.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].