'Anita: Speaking Truth to Power' Reignites Fury Over Sexual Harassment and Political Might
There she was, polite and poised in her smart, turquoise dress suit, facing off against a murderers' row of aging, not entirely august, white men, an ebony Joan of Arc versus a court of incredulous grand inquisitors. To a bitterly divided 1991 America, University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill was either witch, scorned woman, martyr or feminist heroine. In any case, when the smoke cleared it was Hill who was burned at the Senate stake.
Twenty-plus years after the most incendiary and indecent Supreme Court confirmation hearings in U.S. history, filmmaker Freida Mock flips through the sensationally lurid pages of Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas in Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, a documentary sure to re-fan the flames of righteous indignation among anyone, man or woman, sitting to the left of Strom Thurmond.
If, as legendary attorney Clarence Darrow argued, “almost every case has been won and lost when the jury is sworn,” Anita Hill was toast as soon as she sat down to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee that steamy October weekend in 1991. Chaired by now-Veep Joe Biden of Delaware, the all-white, all-male committee wasn’t quite a kangaroo court, but it resembled something from Down Under the Mason-Dixon Line, circa 1930. Rather than hostile witnesses, this was an open-and-shut case of hostile politicos, aghast and appalled that a Supreme Court nominee and “pornography,” “pubic hair” and “penis size” could be publicly uttered in the same sentence.
For investigative reporter Jane Mayer (then with the Wall Street Journal), the televised hearings—“Judge Judy” crossed with the Playboy Channel—were just a smokescreen for Democratic and Republican senators alike: “It wasn’t about the truth ... it was about winning.” Despite a majority of Democrats on the committee, Hill was largely led to the dogs alone. Ted Kennedy sat mostly sullen and stone-faced as a bit player.
An Oscar winner for the superior documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Vision, Mock may not win votes from the pro-Thomas minority, but she pointedly sets out to give Hill back her voice, free of the clumsy, tedious and badgering questions posed by Biden and company. Between long, still-shocking reruns from that R-rated C-SPAN sur-reality show watched by millions in 1991, we are presented with evidence that Hill has moved on, literally, leaving her beloved small-town Oklahoma life for the greener (and far bluer) pastures of Massachusetts and Brandeis University after years of death threats, hate mail, vicious phone calls, and public confrontations.
As for Thomas himself, not surprisingly he’s nolo contendre except for his infamous, scenery-chewing costarring role as self-professed victim of a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Through all his indignant denials to the committee and the nation regarding any hint of sexual harassment toward Hill (Coke? Never touch the stuff) while she was his assistant at the EEOC and the U.S. Department of Education in the 1980s, Thomas didn’t just play the race card, he dealt the whole deck to the committee members, who promptly folded under pressure. Only Sen. Paul Simon from the Land of Lincoln objected to Thomas’ nomination, while a few days later the uber-conservative Thomas eked out a win in the full senate 50-48. In one of American history’s most unjust ironies, Thomas replaced the revered Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice and the victorious voice behind the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Civil Rights decision.
But from the ashes of Hill’s public humiliation, a new wave of female empowerment rose up from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., and beyond: witness the 1992 “Year of the Woman” at the ballot box, renewed political vigor by females of all parties and races, and a new awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. Today Anita Hill lives on as both a woman and a symbol. For her legions of admirers, she’ll always be standing on the mountaintop.