At That Time, It Paid to be Stubborn
“I did not expect any part of the investigation of a Supreme Court nominee to be partisan. I assumed that everybody on the Senate Judiciary Committee wanted to make sure that they were putting somebody who was ultimately qualified and who was of the highest integrity.”
As Anita Hill remembers being called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991, she sits in her office at Brandeis University, a wide window and institutional bookshelves behind her. Her voice is familiar to anyone who’s heard the testimony she gave, for hours, that day, a voice steady and self-assured, measured and also resolute. As she looks back for Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, the scene cuts back to that day in the chamber, a wide shot on senators and staffers shuffling through papers, reporters setting up their cameras. The tape is grainy, Joe Biden has hair, and what Hill is saying—now—sounds heartbreakingly naïve.
The film’s own looking back is framed by Hill, of course, and introduced specifically by an utterly weird trigger, the phone message left for her by Virginia Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas, 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,” she says, the camera focused on Hill’s office phone.
As Anita—currently platforming in theaters across the US—begins with this recording, it invokes an ugly legacy of the hearings, apart from the stories of girls feeling empowered, of workers becoming aware of sexual harassment, and of authorities attending to such cases—at least sometimes. The ugly part has to do with the partisanship Hill identifies, remembered as well by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, who wrote Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas in 1994. Here they sit together for their interview, breaking down the iniquitous process that Hill so hopefully thought would be transparent. “The Democrats didn’t really rescue Anita Hill as they could have,” says Mayer, “And the Republicans were really busy disemboweling her.”
Neither did other representatives, of other communities. Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor who represented Hill in 1991, recalls, “The reason I got involved, it’s pretty amazing, but if you look around at even those who agreed to help her, there were no black men who supported her. In fact, some had tried to persuade her not to testify against Clarence Thomas, [because] ‘You don’t do that to a brother.’” Ogletree’s memory underlines the impossible choices presented by the hearings, as “sides” were variously ordained by race, gender, class, and political affiliation.
Anita makes clear this much with its extensive use of footage from the hearings, the repeated questions put by white men, going over and over Thomas’ harassing language of Thomas, including references to “women’s large breasts” (“That’s a word we use all the time,” half-smiles Arlen Specter during his questioning), “pubic hair” and “Long Dong Silver”. The documentary includes other pieces of the “historical record”, including Thomas’ own testimony. The man who replaced Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court leans into his microphone to assert that, “as a black American,” he sees the hearing as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you.”
Like so many other moments in Freida Lee Mock’s film, this one is chilling. Not only does it recall a horrific instance of political partisanship, the Senate and the media so wildly misbehaving, but it also reveals that this instance was not aberrant, but a precursor of more to come. The spectacle has been replicated and exacerbated in US sociopolitical experience over the past 20 years.
Indeed, as much as Hill or Mayer and Abramson might point out the peculiarities of the moment, underline Hill’s exceptional composure and courage, and the bizarre structure of the hearings as interrogation and attendant media hoopla (“They thought I was on trial,” says Hill), the film makes this other point utterly clear, that the Hill-Thomas Hearings were not an exception, but the start of an ongoing, toxic political business.
Today it’s de rigueur that politicians and lobbyists set up “sides”, and that these sides tell lies, repeatedly, until they stick. And so, Hill’s speaking truth to power has produced multiple legacies. If, on one hand, girls have more information and are better equipped to fight back against institutions and habits who still men to oppress them, the other is that these institutions are increasingly powerful, increasingly media-savvy, and increasingly partisan.