The image of Anita Hill, a lone African-American woman being questioned by an entirely white and male Senate Judiciary Committee, has only become more striking with time. Things are different now, at least on the surface. There is a record number of women in the Senate, 18 more than there were in 1991. Yet at the same time, we still see House of Representatives hearings on women’s issues in which only men are given the opportunity to speak. In the fast-paced world of Washington politics, 23 years is more than a lifetime, but for American political culture as a whole it’s naught but a blip.
This is the context into which Hill and filmmaker Freida Mock have stepped, all this time after the professor’s abrupt arrival in the national consciousness. And it is true that they have stepped together. Anita is only directed by Mock (who won an Oscar for 1994’s Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision), but Hill is her principal witness and collaborator as well as her subject. The film is primarily assembled from archival footage and a new interview with Hill, along with a few witnesses and experts. It allows her to testify again, on her own terms.
Accordingly, the bulk of the film’s brief 76 minutes is spent looking over the events of 1991. George H. W. Bush picked Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, and Senate Democrats came across Hill while vetting the nominee. She and Thomas had worked together at the EEOC. Hill sent the senators a statement detailing incidents of sexual harassment by Thomas and expected that they would take it into consideration. She was not expecting to be called before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify and defend herself.
Mock uses a great deal of footage from the hearing. Many of the committee members are now dead, including Ted Kennedy and Arlen Specter. The chair was Joe Biden. Mock edits the material to emphasize Hill’s calm, almost imperturbable manner as she is asked to graphically tell and retell her memories. Then she turns her eye to the ignorance and bafflement with which many of the Senators interrogate Hill. They seem even more aged in hindsight and entirely foolish. In this light, the choice to ignore Hill and rush Thomas’s confirmation appears as a decision fueled by the embarrassed desire to stop talking about sex and race rather than a measured decision.
That the strength of the film is its archival choices, however, is a bit of a disappointment. Mock’s editing and the added insights of present-day Hill, her friends and Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson (who wrote a 1994 book on the hearing) makes this a superior experience to re-watching the old C-SPAN video, but not by all that much.
Moreover, there is a struggle to fill out the film once the hearing itself has been covered. The second half of Anita focuses on Hill’s gradual revelation that her life would never be the same. Her move to Brandeis University and her involvement in the fight to educate Americans about sexual harassment is presented quickly. While informative and occasionally quite moving, everything after the hearing feels like an extended epilogue rather than an equal part of the documentary.
On the whole, Anita’s style is solid but unremarkable, and its blandly emotional musical score only underlines its lack of ambition. There is but one moment of intrigue left untouched, and it comes quite early. The very first shot of the film is of a telephone in the professor’s Brandeis office, playing a 2010 voicemail from Ginni Thomas. The Justice’s wife asks that Hill apologize and take back everything she said to the Senate. It is a kernel of something fascinating, a way to open up the complexity of this story even further.
No one ever asks why. It is by no means necessary to present Hill’s story alongside Mrs. Thomas’s as equivalent narratives, but bizarre nuances like these are the lifeblood of dramatic, memorable nonfiction storytelling. In valiant pursuit of Hill’s higher dignity, Mock finds only stability. Anita’s well-meaning faithfulness squanders its cinematic potential.