Porn. Pubic hair. Long Dong Silver.
Senate Judiciary hearings never broached these topics in such prurient detail as they did in October 1991, when a young, attractive law professor from Oklahoma was subpoenaed to testify against her former boss, then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill's testimony outraged, titillated and illuminated Americans on the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, and laid bare issues of sexism, racism and power besides.
The documentary film Anita: Speaking Truth To Power uses archived footage, interviews and excerpts to flesh out the story, and director Freida Lee Mock goes further, taking viewers beyond the 23-year-old confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas to see where the key players are now.
The movie starts with a bizarre audio recording left by Virginia Thomas, the justice's wife, on Hill's voice mail in 2010. "I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband," the neo-conservative activist intones.
What Hill did, albeit reluctantly, was put a face on sexual harassment at a time when a majority of Americans barely grasped its definition. In June 1991, pioneering civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall resigned from the U.S. Supreme Court. Even before his appointment to the highest court, Marshall was a giant, having successfully fought for landmark civil rights cases. In a move beyond cynical, President George H.W. Bush nominated another black man, Clarence Thomas, to succeed him. Thomas was Marshall's ideological and intellectual opposite, and his nomination put Democrats between Scylla and Charybdis: his blinding conservatism marked him clearly as a political foe, but going too hard against him risked alienating the African-American base. With riots in Crown Heights and the beating of Rodney King by LAPD some months before, U.S. racial tensions were running especially high that year.
So the nomination progressed, and as luck would have it, the vetting process uncovered a third solution: A written statement from lawyer Anita Hill, in which she alleged workplace sexual harassment by Thomas when she worked under him at the Department of Education and the EEOC. Hill was black, mitigating the threat of charges of racism, and a Reagan-era Republican besides — the golden needle in the haystack. Summoned to Washington, D.C., she was grilled for days by a Senate committee comprised entirely of white, elderly men. Forced to provide details on such topics as the future Justice's self-reported penis size and what kind of pornography he'd pressed her to watch with him (let's just say he's banned from PETA for life), Hill's composure under the openly hostile questioning of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) and others was nothing short of miraculous.
At times, the testimony in Anita is enough to make one's skin crawl. Typical of many sexual harassment cases, she was smeared as an opportunist and an unstable person — detractors repeatedly charged that she'd fantasized the entire scenario. Hill was eviscerated on prime-time TV, and Thomas confirmed.
Thankfully, the doc goes beyond those weeks in 1991, to the greater cultural conversations they sparked. Thomas tried to regain control of the narrative by calling the proceedings a "high-tech lynching," and he was right, but it was Hill who was being strung up. The scandal pulled the sheets off the centuries-old intersection of patriarchy and racism, exposing the stark consequences for black women who dared to challenge sexism. It forced African Americans to talk about suppression of women's voices and pushed the modern women's movement to take an uncomfortable look at the racism within its ranks that prevented some from seeing Hill's case as the galvanizing moment it was.
But as Anita shows, that moment continues to electrify new generations of feminists. In a powerful sequence, young members of Girls for Gender Equality, a modern-day New York-based nonprofit, react to footage of the hearings, clearly moved by the image of a lone woman speaking her truth to a roomful of powerful men. The film also follows Hill's trajectory as an advocate for gender and workplace rights. Now teaching at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, Hill travels the country speaking at events and encouraging women to continue pushing for gender rights. Some 20 years after the Senate hearings, she still stands by her testimony and is lauded as a cultural hero.
As for Virginia Thomas' ill-conceived request for an apology, Hill was unfazed. Sure it was a hoax, she turned it over to the FBI, and when Mrs. Thomas claimed responsibility, characterizing the message as an "olive branch," Hill was resolute that she'd done nothing wrong.
A political joke framed it best:
VT: "I'm Clarence Thomas' wife. Don't you think you should apologize?"
AH: "I'm sorry you're Clarence Thomas' wife."