‘Anita’: An important look back at an unusual incident
The Aspen Times
In the bizarre, lurid, she-said, he-did Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas episode from 1991, at least one aspect is largely undisputed: Hill didn’t push herself into the controversy. Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment, which had occurred 10 years earlier, were made in a private interview with the FBI. Those allegations became public only because of a leak to the press. When the Senate reopened the hearings on Thomas’ confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, because of the claims in the FBI interview, Hill was called to testify. In front of the Senate, it was an uncomfortable Hill who spoke about pubic hair on a Coke can and other squirm-inducing subjects.
“She wanted to make a statement, on paper, confidential, to be read only in private. And it was leaked. That brought her out into the public for this sensationalized day of testimony,” Freida Mock, director of the new documentary “Anita,” said in a phone interview. “She in no way thought she’d be a spokesperson for sexual harassment. She just wanted to do her job, teaching law.”
In “Anita,” which shows tonight at Paepcke Auditorium in the New Views: Documentaries and Dialogue series, Hill comes off as understated, dignified — and with no guns blazing against Thomas, who had been her supervisor in the early 1980s at the Department of Education and the Equal Opportunity Commission. The first portion of the film uses footage from 1991 — the Senate hearing, and the aftermath, when the country divided into pro-Hill camps (those praising Hill for her courage in coming forward) and pro-Thomas camps (those who sided with Thomas’ point that he was the subject of a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks”). The second half is a portrait of Hill as she is now — 56, a well-liked professor at Brandeis University and a low-key symbol of issues that came to national attention two decades ago. There is scant commentary from the modern-day Hill about the events of 1991.
But this time, Hill came forth more willingly. When the project began, around the time of the 20th anniversary of the Senate hearings, Hill had recently published a book, “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home,” which put her back in the spotlight. (In an earlier book, “Speaking Truth to Power,” from 1997, Hill focused more on the Thomas episode.) She also had received, seemingly out of the blue, a phone message from Thomas’ wife, asking Hill to consider giving an apology for her allegations. And as Mock sees it, the biggest reason Hill came forward for the documentary, and has continued to speak about the controversy and write about gender equality, is to keep the issue of sexual harassment in the public’s awareness. Hill also will be in attendance tonight for a Q-and-A session and book signing.
“She’s in the classroom, sees young people and knows film is a way people start talking about issues,” said Mock, who earned an Academy Award for the 1994 documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” about the architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. “I’m aware the film speaks to a very painful part of her life. But she was willing to talk about it. She’s forthcoming and just said ‘yes’ — there were no parameters. There’s a need to tell her story.”
Mock believes that much progress has been made on the issues raised by the 1991 incident.
“There’s definitely an awareness that there wasn’t there 20 years ago,” she said of sexual harassment in the workplace. But Mock also points out current realities that show there is more progress to be made: the frequent occurrence of rape in the military (which is the subject of the new documentary “The Invisible War,” by Kirby Dick) and a recent lawsuit against universities including Swarthmore and the University of Southern California, alleging that the schools had created a hostile environment for women who reported rape.
Mock also wanted to set the record straight about what happened in 1991. She’s impressed by how “fresh that incident still is with the public” but also about how many of the details have been obscured.
“Many of us were riveted to the TV but forget a lot of things about her — like that she was a professor of law. And I forgot how difficult her life was, the torture she went through for several years. There’s so much left unresolved for the American public. The lasting impression is a lot of unresolved questions.”
“Anita” tips the balance in favor of the title character but without giving much consideration to the other side. Thomas is a presence in the film mostly as a shadow.
“It’s really her story,” Mock said. “He’s a very important part of her story, and that part is powerful.”
Mock also was interested in touching on the realities of American politics — “the maneuvering that’s going on,” she said, especially in the decision by Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, not to hear testimony by three women who would have corroborated Hill’s story.
Mock brings up a quote from the film by Jill Abramson, who co-wrote the 1994 book “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas”: “It’s Washington.”
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