Twenty years after a weekend of electrifying television made Anita Hill a household name, Freida Lee Mock revisits the case against Clarence Thomas, as well as the smoldering issue of sexual harassment and Hill herself, in what will be either a revelation or an exhilarating trip down memory lane. All options seem available, given “Anita’s” built-in controversy and political gravitas, even if the crescendo — the Thomas appointment — occurs about halfway through, followed by a less breathless third movement that chronicles the public woman and her continuing fight for the cause she reluctantly took up years ago.
With the full cooperation of Hill, Mock begins tartly, with the now-infamous phone message left for Hill in October 2010 by Ginny Thomas, the Supreme Court justice’s wife: Would Hill ever consider apologizing for what she put her husband through, Mrs. Thomas asks, and set the record straight?
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It’s an almost guaranteed laugh line, but it establishes one of the bewildering facts of the Thomas case: that some people will forever refuse to believe Hill, preferring to accept the idea that a relatively unknown law professor from Oklahoma would concoct a story against a Supreme Court justice-to-be involving sexual innuendo and repeated harassment. After all, who wouldn’t want to go through the public pillorying that Hill underwent after she informed the Senate Judiciary Committee of Thomas’ misbehavior, which included testimony that Thomas imagined “pubic hair” on a can of Coca-Cola, and spoke to her of his interest in the porn films of Long Dong Silver.
Mock is unabashedly in Hill’s corner throughout the movie. History, and the visuals, are on her side as well: The image of the 14 graying white male members of the Judiciary Committee — the Republicans on the attack, the Democrats petrified of opposing George H.W. Bush’s black nominee — interrogating and humiliating a young professional black woman is almost as appalling as their actual behavior. Mock plucks the right moments from what back then seemed an endless, shameless grilling of Hill, notably Sen. Arlen Spector’s willful myopia and, later, Sen. Alan Simpson’s McCarthyite slandering of Hill, talking of all the calls and letters he’d gotten about her, and patting his empty pockets.
Mock has good sources and uses them judiciously; Hill is, after all, the star. (She talks about everything here but her lovelife; her b.f., Massachusetts restaurateur Chuck Malone, talks instead.) New York Times editor Jill Abramson and the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer (authors of “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas”) illuminate much of the dirty business that went on around Hill. Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law professor who came to Hill’s defense in 1991, adroitly addresses several of the peripheral issues to the Thomas case, including the fact that not a lot of black men backed Hill up.
The “race card,” as then-Wall Street lawyer and Hill supporter John W. Carr dubs it, was played by Thomas, and turned the confirmation process around: When Thomas called his accuser part of a “high-tech lynching,” the white Democrats, who included Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy, ran for cover. Witnesses who would have backed Hill up and, as the film reveals, had even been subpoenaed, were never called to testify. Hill was hung out to dry.
But as the film shows, she was never defeated, despite the venomous attacks that followed, and the kind of attention she’d never wanted (contrary to Republican claims, Hill catalogued her accusations against Thomas in a letter to the Judiciary Committee and never expected to actually testify). Rather than shrink from a harsh spotlight, she continues to work as an anti-harassment advocate, something Mock chronicles at a length that begins to seem protracted. But the film is not just about the Thomas hearings; it’s an issue film about sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, and the oft-ignored mechanics of gender and power. “Anita” may be a tribute doc, but it’s one with real heft.
Production values are tops, especially Lili Haydn’s score, which crescendoes when it should and occasionally rings triumphant. Brian Johnson’s editing is typically first-rate.