Anita is a functional film about an astounding person who faced the whirlwind and didn’t blink. It doesn’t do meaningful service to the larger story of persecution and discrimination and never scratches the surface of the poisonous vituperation that swirled around it. None of these things may have been necessary, though. Director Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) may have simply wanted to tell the story of one brave, famous, and yet surprisingly disregarded American hero. If so, she succeeds, but somewhat wanly.
Anita Hill was a law professor at the University of Oklahoma in 1991 when she was contacted to answer questions about Clarence Thomas, a former superior of hers who was being nominated by President George H. W. Bush to be the first black Supreme Court Justice. After she told of Thomas’s sexual harassment of her at work — which, to add insult to injury, was at the Equal Employment Opportunity Office, the government office in charging of policing such things in the workplace — Hill was called before the Senate Judiciary Committee to explain her charges. The televised hearing famously turned into more of a grilling, with a wall of white male senators digging for a reason not to believe what this black woman had said.
Mock includes large sections of the footage here, including Sen. Howell Heflin, a caricature of a Southern blowhard who was just begging for a Chris Farley impression, asking her if she considered herself “a scorned woman.” More supposedly sympathetic figures like the fumbling Sen. Joe Biden helped turn the proceedings into tabloid theater, with repetitive, disbelieving questions that served little purpose besides embarrassing Hill by making her repeat ad nauseam her allegations about Thomas’ odious behavior. The whole affair was completely transformed into spectacle when Thomas followed Hill’s dignified appearance with his self-pitying claims of a “high-tech lynching.” A hard-to-believe 2010 voice mail from Thomas’s wife to Hill (“I would love for you to consider an apology”) that Mock plays over the opening credits shows that emotions haven’t exactly subsided in the decades since.
Anita casts a brief look at the controversy swirling around the hearings at the time, but not nearly enough. Mock outsources most of that work to journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramsom, who covered the conservative campaign to slander Hill and support Thomas’s strained defense and who deliver some tart commentary on the hearings as sexist old-boy circus. The film steers away from telling the story of the whole imbroglio, though, in favor of crafting its unabashedly celebratory portrait of Hill herself. It’s an understandable decision, but probably the wrong one.
The youngest of 13 children born to a couple whose parents had fled Oklahoma after a lynching threat in Arkansas, Hill cut a strong figure during the hearing. Forthright and unfailingly polite, with her family lined up behind her, Hill remained the very picture of dignity even when she was being threatened with sexual violence and murder. She has the same modest and unassuming but strong-willed profile now, in the newer interview footage shot by Mock. But these days, Hill has embraced the spokesperson role, writing books and giving speeches on gender and equality. Mock’s respectful and standoffish manner towards Hill turns the final sections of the film into too much of an encomium, following her from one event to another and registering the applause.
Mock’s decision to focus so much on Hill instead of the larger issues of the hearing itself wastes an opportunity. Hill’s 1991 Senate hearing was not only the first of the sordid televisual scandals that ensnared America throughout the 1990s (O.J., Monica Lewinsky) and the moment after which the culture was forced to take sexual harassment seriously, but was also one of the opening salvos of the decade’s divisive culture wars. Given how truth still often plays second fiddle to ideology in the national dialogue, it’s hard to think of a less instructive moment in recent history, or a more dignified hero.