Photo: Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
The best way to describe how you'll feel after watching Anita, a new documentary on Anita Hill? Flattened — whether simply by the film itself, or by all the inevitable googling you'll do after the fact, trying to make sense out of what happened.
The (very) short story for those of you who, like myself, were only barely cognizant of national events in 1991: Hill, a soft-spoken law professor from Oklahoma, appeared before the Senate to testify about being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, who was undergoing the hearing process after being nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. At that time, the Senate Judiciary Committee was comprised of 14 white men — including now Vice President Joe Biden — many of whom were plainly hostile toward Hill, treating her appearance more like a criminal trial than a hearing. Over the course of eight hours, Hill recounted her experiences in full, gory detail, often being forced to repeat the offensive phrases over and over, as senators attempted to trip her up and accused of her being either "a scorned woman" or having "a martyr complex."
For his part, Thomas appeared before the committee as a seething, wronged man, claiming that the hearing had been orchestrated to destroy him because of his race and deeming it a "high-tech lynching." That's right — Thomas, an African American man, played the race card against an African American woman. The committee's discomfort with the situation they found themselves in — a sordid layer cake of sex, race, and gender bias — was palpable, and they handled Thomas and his outrage with kid gloves. In the end, he was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a vote of 52-48, the narrowest victory for a nominee in over a century.
Regardless of your opinion of Hill's claims, what's incredible about her testimony, to this day, is her unbelievable grace and composure under pressure. She never once exhibited signs of anger, sadness, or contempt — or even impatience — despite being faced with an insensitive, immovable committee that bears such obvious disdain toward her. Hill's innate self-assurance and dignity is something that clearly resonated with director Freida Mock, whose documentary on Hill, debuts on Friday, March 21. Over the course of the roughly 70-minute film, Mock distills the hours of testimony, the public scandal, and the following 22 years of Hill's personal and public life into a quietly affirming portrait of a woman at the center of social change.
But, Mock's documentary fails to deliver what viewers will so clearly want by the end: blood. We wind up wanting reciprocity, vindication, a scorching indictment of the senators and the media. But, we don't get it. It's hard to watch, and finally comprehend, the injustice that was done to Hill, and then leave the film with only a mild affirmation that, yes, Hill is happy now and her life is fulfilling. We're left sputtering, spinning our wheels, losing ourselves in court transcripts and news stories in an attempt to figure out just how events could have transpired the way they did. And, let us assure you — nothing in that follow-up reading made us feel better.
There are moments in Anita when the plot meanders a bit too far. A scene where Hill stands at the end of her childhood driveway, reminiscing about how far away the mailbox was, seems particularly out of place. And, there are moments where Mock could have delivered a punishing blow, if she'd only chosen to do so. But, given what we know about Hill — her gentle, mild-mannered nature; her rural upbringing; and her quiet belief in doing what's right — perhaps this is the truest possible portrait.