Before the lights dimmed in Stanford University’s Paul Brest Hall for a special screening last October of the documentary Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, the film’s star, law professor Anita Hill, took the stage to thundering applause. “It’s just amazing looking out into [a crowd of] so many young faces and so many faces closer to my age,” she said.
Her speech was deliberate, her voice self-possessed and strong. She sounded the same as she did in 1991 during the three-day Senate Judiciary Hearing where she testified to the sexual harassment she endured from her boss, Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, now Supreme Court Justice.
In Hill’s introductory remarks to the audience, she stated her desire to spark an “intergenerational dialogue.” She explains, “I want us to think about what our lives were like in the 1980s when we were starting our careers in workplaces, what they are like today with young people going into work, college, and the military, and what we want them to be like in the future.”
The film Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, by the Academy-award winning director Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision), has the power to create the intergenerational dialogue Hill wants. The film not only empowers women but speaks to all ages and audiences on the importance of taking action when it comes to battling gender inequality and harassment. Anitarevisits the historic significance of the Hill/Thomas three-day hearing through news coverage and footage. Hill’s story is presented through narration and commentary from Hill, her lawyer, Charles Ogletree, and supporters Jill Abramson and Jane Meyer who wrote the book Strange Justice, an extensive study and analysis of the hearings.
Mock’s powerful documentary utilizes these sources and voices to offer both a history lesson and contemporary social commentary on the impact of Hill’s testimony in the ongoing struggle for gender and racial equality. The film is a human portrait of Hill depicting her as an outspoken agent for change and more than just a survivor of sexual harassment.
In the summer of 1991 Anita Hill received a phone call from the FBI inquiring into the character of Clarence Thomas. It was part of the requisite background check for Thomas, who had been nominated for a Supreme Court seat by President George H. Bush. Thomas had been her boss years earlier at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While working for Thomas, Hill endured sexual harassment from him including pressure to go on dates, comments on the size of his penis, descriptions of pornographic videos, and one comment about pubic hair on a coke can in his office.
In what she believed was a confidential statement Hill told the caller the truth about Thomas’ inappropriate work behavior. Hill’s statement was leaked to the press, and a senate judiciary hearing was initiated in which Hill was required to testify under oath to the committee about the harassment.
Viewers less familiar with the hearings are introduced to what became a titillating national scandal with considerable footage from inside the hearings. For those that watched the hearings at the time, the footage serves as a reminder of the racial and gender biases and dishonor Hill faced. Hill was essentially put on trial for her report of Thomas’ sexual harassment. The uninformed and bullying all white-male committee forced Hill to repeat Thomas’ lurid statements and asked sensationalist questions intended to break her down and “trip her up,” as Ogletree said.
Instead of an inquiry into the character of Thomas, the hearings became a partisan investigation against Hill. In the film, Abramson and Meyer remark that for the committee “it wasn’t about the truth. It was about winning.” Edward Kennedy, then Democratic Senator of Wyoming acknowledged this, saying there was the necessity to “clear this courtroom of dirt and innuendo” and stop the “character assassination of Hill.”
Throughout the hearing Thomas consistently denied Hill’s statements. Thomas focused on his identity as an African-American male. He claimed the hearings were a racial persecution, stating that they were a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Thomas’ testimony and much of the criticism Hill received from some African-American men attacked Hill on the grounds of racism. This criticism casting Thomas’ race as the issue at hand ignored Hill’s identity as an African-American woman and the double discrimination she faced. As Hill says in the film, “He had a race. I had a gender.” She also elaborates more on issues of gender and race in her book “Reimagining Equality.”
The film highlights Hill’s calm and consistent responses in the face of a clearly biased panel, Thomas’ denial, along with the criticism of skeptics. Her courage, integrity, and determination to tell the truth and stand up for herself and women’s rights is reinforced throughout. At one point during the hearing Senator Alan Simpson asks Hill the common blaming-shifting question posed to battered women, survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment: why on earth did you stay and why would you speak to a man who did that to you? Senator Howell Heflin inquires, “Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a martyr complex?"
Senators Simpson’s and Heflin’s questions speak to society’s lack of information about sexual harassment in 1991. And as Hill responds to this in her commentary in the film, she acknowledges that it is still a problem. Much of what Hill says aims to correct the lines of inquiry and thinking that blame survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault. She emphasizes that sexual harassment, sexual assault and any type of abuse is not about sex or the victim’s behavior but is “about control and power and abusing it.”
Hill’s life and impact today
After presenting the history and the hearing, Anita focuses on Hill’s current work: the conferences organized around sexual harassment, her speaking engagements and her work with youth to help them understand and change a misogynistic culture that perpetuates discrimination against women. Footage of Hill speaking to diverse audiences emphasizes her dedication to empowering women and men to be advocates for gender and racial justice. Anita makes it clear that it is not just about the hearing in 1991 or one man’s inappropriate remarks and behavior. It is about the systemic racial and gender injustice that Hill endured not only from Thomas but also in the way her hearing was handled. It is about eradicating the racist and patriarchal society that allowed the Senate Judiciary Committee to question Hill’s character and motivations rather than question and examine the allegations on Thomas’ behavior.
As the film winds down, Mock shifts the focus to Hill’s personal life. Hill speaks about her family life and personal relationships while clips of happy family events and photos flash across the screen. Viewers are treated to an inside glimpse of Hill’s strong support network, providing insight into the people and upbringing she says encouraged her to stand up and speak out about sexual harassment at a time when it was rarely discussed. While still recognizing Hill’s iconic role in advocating for gender equality nationally and internationally, Anita highlights Hill’s humanity and provides a different side to what the world saw in the lurid details of the hearing over 20 years ago.
In the question and answer session after the screening, Hill returned to her opening remarks about sparking an intergenerational dialogue. Answering a question about how to change our culture today, Hill said it is “an ongoing process” and there has to be “a broad-based commitment to change.” She spoke about college campuses being a locus for creating and spreading this change. Hill is adamant that this is not only a workplace issue, but an issue involving all institutions and the need to address how we can transform our culture. Mock and Hill have traveled around the country to show Anita on college campuses to get their message heard and ensure that young people are educated about Hill’s history and life, which is now a part of the history of our nation. They discuss how all women—and women of color disproportionately—have been treated and discriminated against. Urging the audience to elevate their voice and advocate for bold changes, Hill reminded everyone “when you’re talking about any kind of abuse of power, any kind of discrimination, you’re talking about human beings.” She continued, “Look around you, look at the people who are here and don’t lose sight of their faces because you are the community and you will be engaging in this exchange for an awful long time… Until we understand how each person is affected, we can’t change the problems… the burden needs to shift from the victims to those in power… as a diverse community of women and men, what are the boldest decisions [for change] that you can conceptualize?”