Two decades have passed since Anita Hill’s iconic testimony against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and a new film called “Anita” aims to illuminate both Hill’s experience of testifying and the life she’s lived since that turbulent time.
“Anita” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (see the trailer here) and is directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Frieda Lee Mock, who won an Oscar for her 1994 documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.”
The film traces the trajectory of Hill’s life: her childhood in Oklahoma as the youngest of 13 children born to farmers, Albert and Erma Hill; her undergraduate years at Oklahoma State and then law school at Yale; her time in Washington D.C. as an associate in a law firm; and then her work with future Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
It is of course her connection to Clarence Thomas that initially brought Anita Hill’s life and work to national attention. While working as Thomas’s assistant at the EEOC, Hill alleges that she endured countless instances of sexual harassment, in which her former boss discussed porn, various and sundry sex acts, and propositioned her for sex.
After hours of lurid and often asinine questioning by the men of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Hill was alternated dismissed, insulted, and even accused of perjury, the Senate confirmed Thomas to the Supreme Court by a narrow vote of 52–48. Hill was alternately vilified, in the words of David Brock as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” and praised for her fortitude and in bringing the issue of sexual harassment to the national stage.
Robin Abcarian in The Los Angeles Times notes, that “[Hill’s] testimony may have failed to block the appointment of an accused sexual harasser, who went on to become one of the Supreme Court’s most reliably conservative justices. But it accomplished something much bigger, and arguably more important: She woke the country up to the issue of workplace sexual harassment, and especially to the complexities of a victim’s response. The hearings also galvanized a new generation of female political leaders. The following year was joyously dubbed “the Year of the Woman” as women in unprecedented numbers ran for the House and Senate.”
When recently interviewed by Slate, Hill avers that one positive consequence of her experience is that sexual harassment was given a name and that things are progressing, albeit at a snail’s pace. She argues that “there is a difference today: ‘What I am hoping,’ she says, ‘is that this movie will shed a light on the process of 1991 and people can ask themselves, are our processes any better today? Are our policies more responsive today? And I think they clearly are better because I hear from a lot of women that after 1991 it wasn’t just that women started to file complaints, but they went into their employment arenas and said, ‘This has got to change, we’ve got to let people know what their rights are, we have to stop the culture of our workplaces that support and suborn these behaviors.’ … There is still work to be done. It took a lot of very brave women for us to get here. People say, ‘I thought we’d already fixed that problem.’ No. But we’ve acknowledged it.’”
Indeed, “Anita” underscores that although her testimony against Clarence Thomas may have initially made Anita Hill famous or even infamous, it is her work in championing issues of equality as an author, speaker, advocate, and college professor that should be recognized and understood, and not only for those who remember the events of the 1991 hearing but for a new generation still impacted by the reality of gender discrimination.