Across the U.S. in the early 1990s, lawmakers, mental health experts and jury members listened to toddlers talk about sexual abuse and Satanic rituals in subterranean petting zoos beneath their preschools, or in underwater kingdoms, or on rocket ships. Innocent people went to jail because jurors believed the kids’ adult-coached fantasies.
Meanwhile, over one long October day on Capitol Hill in 1991, a Yale-educated law professor spoke in specific, plausible terms about sexual innuendo she had endured under her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 10 years earlier. And many in the country, including a long row of old, white male senators sitting in judgment, refused to believe her.
What a country we live in sometimes.
The documentary Anita takes us back to the days of what became something of a partisan witch hunt in D.C. at the end of the 20th century — though the skirmish appears downright civil compared to today’s climate of screaming congressional incompetence.
After little more than 20 years, Georgia native Clarence Thomas’ stint on the Supreme Court marks him as a tight-lipped, GOP-groomed placeholder in judicial history. By contrast, his then-vilified accuser, Anita Hill, looks like the figure that future generations will view with admiration. She gambled with her career and reputation — losing badly in the short term — by choosing to do what she thought was right.
The film by Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) begins with the jaw-dropping audio of Ginni Thomas, the justice’s wife. She leaves a voicemail on the phone at Hill’s Brandeis University office, asking Hill if she might consider apologizing or explaining “why you did what you did with my husband.” This was in 2010. Understandably, Hill thought the message had to be a sick joke from someone pretending to be Ginni. It wasn’t — which maybe illustrates just how long personal conviction, or denial, can live on when it comes to heated issues like sexual harassment.
Anita dives right into the chaos of Hill’s lamb-to-the-slaughter appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the days leading up to the confirmation vote for Thomas. In this footage, as well as in the contemporary interviews for the film throughout the movie, Hill comes across with great dignity. By contrast, the white-male committee members vacillate between bewilderment and innuendo as they insist that Hill repeat again and again the details of her testimony (the pubic hair, the Coke can, Long Dong Silver). Sometimes it’s hard to say whether they’re trying to humiliate and discredit her, or if the smuttiness of her testimony tickles them like the dirty jokes they loved as schoolboys.
Either way, it’s clear they just don’t get the very notion of sexual harassment. And they don’t understand that Hill isn’t filing a legal complaint; she’s describing behavior she personally witnessed from a man who, as chairman of the EEOC, was supposed to be national watchdog guarding against this very type of harassment in the nation’s workplaces.
The film’s climax is the same as at the hearing itself: Thomas addresses the committee, denies all of Hill’s charges, and likens the hearing to “a high-tech lynching.” Personally offended by anyone playing the so-called “race card,” John W. Carr, one of Hill’s former colleagues and a corroborating witness for her, admits, “It was strategically brilliant.”
Sure enough, the senators quickly back down — more worried about seeming to attack the rights of an African American man than in defending the workplace rights of a woman regardless of race.
In Anita’s last act, we get a delayed look at where she came from — her hardscrabble but high-achieving childhood as the youngest of 13 kids, whose parents “expected us to be twice as good” as their white classmates. The movie could use more viewpoints and perspectives on the importance of the Hill-Thomas clash, two decades on. Instead, the last 15 minutes go a little soft with footage of various tributes to Hill in universities such as Spelman and from audiences full of visibly moved but almost entirely female audiences. Looks like that gender gap is still a mighty wide one.
Anita. A documentary by Freida Lee Mock. 76 minutes. At the Regal Tara.