AFI Docs Review: “Anita”

Freida Mock’s documentary pays tribute to Anita Hill 22 years after her Senate testimony polarized America.
Still of Anita via AFI Docs.
Still of Anita via AFI Docs.

The sight of an all-white, all-male panel discussing issues
that affect women is,
sadly, not unfamiliar in these times, whether it’s the House
Oversight Committee debating
contraceptive insurance
coverage
,

or a Judiciary subcommittee proposing a nationwide ban on
abortions
after the 20-week

mark,

or the Joint Chiefs of Staff testifying about sexual assault in
the
military
.

But there’s still something shocking about the CSPAN footage of

Anita Hill testifying to a Senate committee about being sexually harassed by
Clarence Thomas in 1991. Led by none other than Vice President Joe Biden, and featuring an all-star lineup including
Orrin Hatch,
Arlen Specter, and a distinctly uncomfortable
Ted Kennedy, the panel seems to approach Hill with attitudes ranging from bewilderment to barely
concealed rage.

Anita is Academy Award-winning filmmaker
Freida Lee Mock’s tribute to Hill, 22 years after she polarized America. Mock follows Hill around
her Brandeis University office (the words “Speak Truth to Power” are framed on her
wall) and explores in detail the case that made her both a household name and a national
target. The film opens with a lingering shot of a telephone, followed by the audio
of a now-infamous voicemail left by
Ginny Thomas in 2010. “Good morning, Anita Hill,” says the voice. “I just wanted to reach across
the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to
consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did
with my husband.”

The fact that people continue to doubt the veracity of Hill’s sworn testimony seems
bemusing to both Hill and Mock (Hill, after all, passed a polygraph during the furor,
while Justice Thomas refused to take one), and makes up a large part of
Anita’s narrative. Mock interviews
New York Times editor
Jill Abramson and the
New Yorker’s
Jane Mayer, who published a book on the case in 1994, both of whom recall vividly how hostile
the panel of senators was to Hill from the beginning. Biden refused to call four character
witnesses who wanted to testify on Hill’s behalf, and
Howell Heflin accused her of being a scorned woman with a “martyr complex.” Remarkable amid the
quirky but now-familiar details of the case (the infamous Coke can, Long Dong Silver)
is how both sides seemed to want Hill discredited. “The Democrats really didn’t rescue
Anita Hill the way they could have,” says Mayer, “and the Republicans were busy disemboweling
her.”

Mock’s narrative doesn’t pretend to be impartial, but
neither is it a hatchet job
on Thomas, who appears only in archival footage to claim that
the attack on his character
is a “national disgrace . . . a high-tech lynching.” His
absence is notable mainly
in that while he seems to have since retreated into an
implacable shell
of bitterness
and self-proclaimed
victimization,

Mock shows how Hill has steadfastly refused to let her identity
be defined for her,
continuing on her path as a law professor and speaking
regularly to women and students
across the country. “It hasn’t been wonderful,” she says,
recalling the 25,000 letters
she received, the death threats at home and at work, and how
Republican senators in
her home state of Oklahoma tried to get both her and her boss
fired. “But in the end,
I can’t think of any other way to do it.” Mock’s portrait of
Hill—graceful, courageous,
and bold in the face of implacable opposition—is inspiring to
watch, and a thoughtful
reminder of an important chapter in the battle for gender
equality.

Playing June 23, 7:30 PM, at the National Portrait Gallery.

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