Anita Hill’s struggle is an essential piece of modern cultural and political history that remains painfully relevant.
Anita, directed by Freida Lee Mock. At screens around New England.
By Tim Jackson
Anita Hill, who bravely testified about the sexual provocations and harassment toward her by current Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas, decided the time was right to let her story be documented. Her struggle is an essential piece of modern cultural and political history that remains painfully relevant. The compelling film by Oscar-winning director Freida Lee Mock (Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner and Maya Lin: A Strong Vision) makes it clear that sexual harassment in the workplace remains far reaching and insidious. And it also manages to avoid the elephant in the room—that Clarence Thomas is unqualified to be in his position as a Supreme Court Justice. As recently as February 21, 2014, writer Jeffrey Toobin observed in the New Yorker that “Thomas is happy to lay waste to decades, even centuries, of constitutional law. . . . These days, Thomas only reclines; his leather chair is pitched so that he can stare at the ceiling, which he does at length. He strokes his chin. His eyelids look heavy. Every schoolteacher knows this look. It’s called ‘not paying attention.’”
But I digress. Democracy’s shame—that Thomas is on the highest court in the land—is not the main focus of this film. Wisely, I think, Mock centers on Anita Hill’s personal transformation since being thrust into the national spotlight in 1991, when she testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she experienced working for Thomas, then a nominee to the Supreme Court.
At the time she had no idea of the extent of ideological hand-to-hand combat and media circus that would result from what she saw as her civic duty. The hearing, as the film clearly shows, was a travesty. It became less about Thomas’s character than an exercise in blatant intimidation by political forces—led by an all-male panel of middle-aged white males—to intimidate and break down Hill. Ultimately, under the embarrassingly insubstantial leadership of Senators Joe Biden and Arlen Specter, the committee took no action to consider whether the nominee to the court was a bullying and lying thug.
Instead, Hill herself was grilled, and was asked a plethora of graphic and inappropriate questions that have become legendary.
But legendary to whom? It is, 25 years later, a story largely unknown to today’s generation of young women. Anyone of an age to recall Hill v. Thomas will still be stunned by the language and latitude given these men to probe and berate their witness. Her stoic and even-tempered response became a watershed moment for women. The film follows how, rather than be defeated, Hill took stock of this unanticipated moment in the spotlight and transformed her life.
Beautiful, intelligent, and still cool as a cucumber, Professor Hill has since brought the issue of sexual harassment to discussions with young women who have no knowledge of her groundbreaking role in feminist politics. It was not an easy path. For the past 25 years she has been quiet, slowly coming to terms with the responsibility she has to her moment in history. When you consider the indignities and sexual crimes suffered by women in the military today, or current attempts to legislate women’s health and their control over their bodies, it is clear that sharing her experience is necessary.
Details such as Thomas’s alleged obsession with pornography and large breasts, the pubic hair on the Coke can, and the porn star “Long Dong Silver” were way out of whack for television in 1991. When the hearings came on TV, parents shuffled the kids off into another room. Thomas denied everything and famously called the proceedings a “high tech lynching” Now he remains notoriously quiet on the bench. But Hill’s work continues stronger and more vital than ever. In this documentary, her story is rightfully and rivetingly restored for a new generation.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. You can read more of his work on his blog.