Anita: Speaking Truth to Power is a documentary by Academy Award winner Freida Lee Mock. The subject is Anita Hill, who became famous in 1991 during the confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. For those who remember that time, the story may seem familiar, but here we have Ms. Hill herself describing her part in the events.
Thomas was nominated by the first President Bush to replace Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice on the court and a towering figure in the civil rights movement. In contrast, Thomas was an undistinguished lawyer who had been favored by Presidents Reagan and Bush for his conservative views. He received the lowest rating from the American Bar Association of any nominee in postwar history.
As part of the vetting process, the FBI interviewed past associates. One of them was Anita Hill, a young African American lawyer who had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education’s Civil Rights division. As she says in the film, she had to be truthful, and in the interview said that Thomas had made persistent unwanted sexual advances to her at that time, which included very lewd and inappropriate comments. The interview was leaked, and Hill ended up testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She did not anticipate that she would become a target of accusatory questioning by the Senators, but that’s what happened. This was before awareness of sexual harassment as an issue was widespread, and the footage of the Senators in the film reveals them as clueless at best, and in the case of some such as Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, positively malicious. Although there was no advantage that could be gained from Ms. Hill making any of this up, that was exactly what was implied. When Thomas appeared later at the hearing, he when into attack mode, claiming that the whole episode was about his race, and calling the hearings a “high tech lynching.” The media turned it into a “he said-she said” story, and of course Thomas ended up confirmed in a close vote.
The first half of the film covers all these events thoroughly, and inspires the viewer to be outraged all over again about the lack of common decency displayed by the Senators, Republicans and some Democrats as well. The only person who comes off well is Ms. Hill, who maintained her dignity and poise throughout the process. In the second half of the film, she gets to open up about her life, and her family, growing up in Oklahoma, the familiar message that you need to be twice as good to get ahead if you’re black, and where the film really hit me was her life after the Thomas hearings.
She wanted to just go back to doing contract law, but contrary to her intentions, her speaking out in 1991 had made her famous, beloved by many, vilified by others. We are shown how she has become an advocate for women, both in terms of fighting against sexual harassment and in the wider issues around gender inequality. In a series of talks and events, we see how Anita Hill has influenced further generations of women, and helped empower all of us to speak out. Mock’s strategy in the film of starting with the Thomas hearings, and then going out to the bigger story of Anita Hill’s life and legacy, helps it progress from anger and frustration to an awareness of gratitude, courage, and a higher purpose.