Certain historical events unfold when you’re young, but you don’t even realize how important they are until you’re much older. I remember seeing the tank man of Tiananmen Square on TV, for instance, and the toppling of the Berlin Wall. In retrospect, it’s impossible for a little kid to understand the impact of these moments since it requires historical perspective to know why these moments matter.
The same goes for the Anita Hill hearings of 1991. It wouldn’t be until high school that I’d understand the seriousness of sexual harassment and the insane optics of the hearings. This is one of the early seeds of third-wave feminism, sparking an outrage from people in the riot grrl movement to working women and working moms to fathers who didn’t want their daughters to put up with this kind of crap later in life.
This is the story contained in Frieda Mock’s documentary Anita.
[For the next two weeks we will be covering the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, which runs from June 13th to June 23rd. The films at the festival are dedicated to bringing awareness to human rights issues around the world and laying the groundwork for justice and change. For more information and a full schedule, visit ff.hrw.org.]
Director: Freida Mock
Release Date: TBD
When Anita Hill testified that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her, I wonder if she realized this would change her life, mostly for better and but also a little for worse. Mock catches up with Hill today and shows a woman whose owned her role as a feminist hero and trailblazer. Even today she’s a lightning rod for hate. At the beginning of the film, Hill receives an outraged voicemail allegedly from Clarence Thomas’s wife. The voice demands that she apologize for what she’s done. Hill just sort of shrugs it off. Whether it’s real or not, she’s used to the negative attention by now.
Mock structures much of her film around footage of the 1991 testimony and more recent interviews with several key witnesses. I mentioned optics a bit ago, and it’s fascinating to think about these sexual harassment hearings if they were held today. Anita Hill delivered her testimony to a panel entirely comprised of old white men. For some reason there wasn’t a single woman on the panel (i.e., someone who may have also experienced sexual harassment at some time in her career). Rather than just allow Hill to read her testimony into the record, she’s grilled. Her credibility is in question from the first minute.
Sure, these sorts of hearings have always about political theater and partisan grandstanding, but it’s ugly to watch, especially with how tone deaf it seems today. As a kid, I don’t remember what I thought about the hearings. Probably just that they were happening and I wasn’t watching cartoons because of them. As an adult, it’s staggering to think about a civilian getting picked on in this way. Even the liberals on the panel who would ostensibly be on Hill’s side — most notably Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy — just allow her to be attacked. Kennedy speaks up on Hill’s behalf, but I was hoping for more out of the Lion of the Senate.
Senator Arlen Specter takes a particularly condescending and patronizing tone with Hill, and both Alan Simpson and Orrin Hatch get downright snippy. The media immediately calls Hill into doubt as well. Nevermind that Hill had corroborating witnesses and passed a polygraph test; and nevermind that she was the first of many women who had the courage to come forward. Maybe at the back of her head she knew that she’d be dragged through the mud and have her reputation and credibility questioned every single day, which is the reason so few women spoke out. It’s never the act of telling the truth that hurts but the consequences of the telling.
When Thomas testifies, the tone of the committee changes. Specter, Simpson, and Hatch go from condescension to moral outrage. Hatch in particular plays up the indignation with his histrionic, unbecoming performance on the political stage. It’s ugly, it’s transparent, and it’s ultimately a sham. The same can be said of Thomas’s own moral outrage on the stand, and his obvious play of the race card. No one seems to point out that Hill is black too, but then again, by this point the committee is done with trashing her. Two decades later, all of the moves of political theater are so obvious.
Like Kathleen Hanna says in The Punk Singer, “When a man tells the truth, it’s the truth. When I tell the truth, I have to negotiate the way I’m perceived.” (Seeing Anita and The Punk Singer back to back would be a find double bill.) There seemed to be a backlash against feminism throughout the 1980s, though given some of the hardline stances of the second-wave feminists, it’s not surprising how some of those views could be discarded or ridiculed. Feminism needed to evolve, and it’s Anita Hill who helped this process along, allowing women to speak up about their experiences at the workplace rather than just hiding those issues and trying to let them slide. Silence isn’t equality, which makes the mere act of testifying the same act as hurling a brick through a window.
When Hill is on screen, Mock’s careful to avoid outright hagiography and hero worship. It’s a careful line to tread, and I think with Anita Hill, it’s a line that needs to be tread. Here’s a woman who teaches law that’s also become a central figure in third-wave feminism; here’s a woman who still gets venomous hate mail but also takes time to file through her positive mail, not to counteract the poison in the negative letters necessarily but as a source of inspiration — this is the reason to speak truth to power, this is the reason to keep going.
It’s the old line about some people being born great, others achieving greatness, and others having greatness thrust upon them. With some people, it’s maybe two out of three, though I suppose it depends on how you define “great.” The circumstances of Hill’s own birth may have been humble, but her perseverance as a student and young woman is what got her where she is today. She carries on with admirable grace.
Anita works both as a portrait of a woman and a portrait of an old mindset. The first portrait is inspiring while the second is off-putting. It’s a film that functions as a time capsule, almost. We look at where we were just two decades ago, we think of where we are now, and in this act of looking there’s a combination of incredulity and relief. But that’s not all. We need to consider the future. Mock shows a new generation of girls and young women who are already thinking about their own rights. This isn’t just a matter of how far we’ve come in the 20 years since Anita Hill’s testimony; just think of far we’ll go in another two decades.
Anita screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Friday, June 14. For tickets and more information, click here.