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Oscar-winning director Freida Lee Mock’s latest documentary opens with a close-up shot of a telephone. The voice of Ginni Thomas is heard urging Anita Hill to apologize and recant her testimony alleging her husband, Clarence Thomas, sexually harassed her and looked at pornography.
The vocemail that opens “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power” was recorded on Oct. 9, 2010, the 19th anniversary of Hill’s appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings. It was a scandal that briefly gripped the nation in October 1991, after President George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Mock’s nonfiction film, an older and wiser Hill says she initially thought the message left on her Brandeis University office phone was a prank. Not only because it seemed so preposterous that the wife of a sitting Supreme Court justice would actually call her, but because Mrs. Thomas urged her “to change sworn testimony,” which could have opened her up to charges of perjury. Mrs. Thomas, a conservative lobbyist, has long caused her husband to be dogged with allegations of a conflict of interest. True to form, however, he’s always refused to recuse himself on touchy partisan matters.
Crucially, the documentary stresses that Hill, who was a professor at an Oklahoma law school when she was called to testify, did not voluntarily approach the Senate for the Thomas confirmation hearings. Instead, Hill was contacted by the Senate because she had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill’s private, written statement about Thomas was subsequently leaked, leading to her Washington testimony in October 1991.
These pivotal events are what sparked the ensuing media circus, leading some members of the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee to make destroying Hill’s credibility a top priority. In short order, Republicans made her out to be a self-aggrandizing fame and fortune seeker, with a vindictive thirst for revenge. “Truth” makes an argument to the contrary: That Hill was a private citizen who was reluctantly thrust into the spotlight but rose to the occasion and told the truth from her perspective, no matter the price.
Hill explains in the film that she naively expected the senate to simply vet Thomas to determine if he was qualified to be on the Supreme Court. She was totally unprepared for the extraordinary level of politicking that process entailed, particularly when the committee was led by arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. Hill quickly discovered, much to her chagrin, that she was being put on de facto trial and subjected to a campaign of character assassination, all of which was designed to keep her from testifying about Thomas on television.
Her eventual testimony was a bombshell of salacious details, mixing race and sexuality in a way the mainstream media rarely encounters at this high a level. Because both Hill and Thomas are African Americans, while Thomas’ wife Ginni is white, the drama captured the nation.
Compelled to “relive an experience and an ugly issue,” with calm and poise, the besieged Hill itemized Thomas’ unwanted advances and sexually provocative comments when he was her boss. She was made to repeat her allegations regarding Thomas’ infamous lewd comments about pubic hair on a Coke can, aspects of sex acts performed in pornographic films that Thomas enjoyed and his penis size.
“Truth” also puts a spotlight on the Judiciary Committee’s Democrats , who did not come to Hill’s defense or show much interest in finding out whether her allegations were true. Sen. Howell Heflin was particularly hard on Hill, grilling her as to whether she’s “a scorned woman,” playing into a gender stereotype to “explain” away why she was coming forward at this time. Not even Vice President Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, stood in Hill’s defense or called any witnesses like Angela Wright, who would have confirmed Hill’s allegations. By refusing to help her, Biden set the stage for the Senate’s confirmation of Thomas and he was ultimately voted in 52-48.
However, Mock’s doc does not dwell on Biden’s betrayal. In doing so, “Truth” pulls its punches somewhat and neglects to ask the toughest question of all: Why did the first black president, a self-styled champion of women’s rights, select the same senator who stuck the proverbial knife in Anita Hill’s back to be his running mate and vice president?
The answer seems to be the film’s pro-Democratic Party bias. (Hill currently currently teaches a class at Brandeis called “Social Justice and the Obama Administration.”) In any case, “Truth” does take the 14 white, male senators of the Judiciary Committee to task for being cowed by Thomas. Sen. Ted Kennedy is seen making a rare comment in Hill’s defense. “Truth” also bestows significant credit upon Democratic Congresswomen Nita Lowey, Pat Schroeder and Patsy Mink, along with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, all of whom stood up for Hill as she was being grilled by the male senators.
Almost a quarter century since the events depicted in “Truth,” we can look back and say that Hill put “sexual harassment” on the rhetorical map, leading to major advancements for women in the workplace. The film also shows how Hill’s activism has inspired women across America, including the group Girls for Gender Equality, to stand up for their rights and demand they be treated as equals with men.
Filmmaker Freida Lee Mock won the Best Documentary Academy Award for 1994’s “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” about the artist who created Washington’s Vietnam Memorial Wall and the Civil Rights Fountain Memorial, and has received four other Oscar nominations. In “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power,” which was screened at the 2014 Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, Mock shows that in 1991 Hill also had a strong clear vision, which the 57-year-old continues to pursue even today.
Though Hill's nemesis on the Supreme Court once complained of the “media circus” her allegations whipped up, this film shows that the fearless Hill did not just survive her brush with power, she thrived -- all by speaking the truth and never wavering.
Ed Rampell is The Progressive’s man in Hollywood and author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book,” in stores now.