Talking to Anita Hill, as truthful as ever

March 28, 2014 

It’s fair to say that the target audience for the new documentary “Anita” is not Ginni Thomas.

The movie is about Anita Hill and it opens with the audio of Mrs. Clarence Thomas’ bizarre 2010 voicemail message, asking professor Hill to “consider an apology and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought. I certainly pray about this and hope one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. OK! Have a good day!”

It’s pretty clear that Frieda Lee Mock, the director, isn’t trying to win over the “little bit slutty and a little bit nutty” crowd, which still maintains that Hill was a deranged fabulist and attention seeker when she testified to Congress that Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, sexually harassed her when he was her boss.

As far as Mock is concerned, Anita Hill was truthful back when she was 35, and Anita Hill is truthful now at 57. The only story to tell is how she has fared since the infamous 1991 confirmation hearings that made her a household name. Through the voices of longtime friends and corroborating witnesses – plus Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, whose 1994 book, “Strange Justice,” bolstered Hill’s claims – what emerges in the movie is the closing argument the Senate never heard.

Hill has been on something of a media tear this month, promoting the film on “The Daily Show,” “The View,” “MSNBC,” and in several online chats. Hill knows her name is familiar to those of us old enough to have been paying attention back in the early ’90s. And she knows she won’t be changing the minds of Thomas partisans. Her target demographic is young people.

Why is she was willing to dredge up that awful fall of 1991, and step back into a spotlight that had been anything but kind to her? In the intervening years, she has received death threats, bomb threats, threats of sexual violence, and a sustained campaign to have her fired from her first teaching job in Oklahoma. All that plus a 7:30 a.m. call from Ginni Thomas. This has been her life. She hadn’t planned on any of it.

In the film, Hill says she once believed she could devote just two years, post-confirmation hearings, to sexual harassment law, and then return to her pet subjects. “Initially,” she tells me, “I thought I would just go back and do what I do: commercial law and contracts. But within months I was getting so many requests that it just felt that there was a sincere effort for people to understand sexual harassment. It took a lot of letters from people who were asking really sincere questions, and so I gave it two years. And 23 years later … I say to people I do know how to count. There just seem to be so many layers to the problem that we’re still trying to address them.”

The most brutal part of the film is reliving the complete and systemic failure to acknowledge what Hill was saying.

Almost every recent interview with Hill begins with an interlocutor observing, in great amazement, that 23 years have elapsed since the hearing. Is that because it feels like it’s been longer, or more recent?

“Isn’t that odd, though? I think that both are going on. I mean, you look at that panel of men in the Senate and it’s 1991 and yet it looks like 50 or 60 years ago. And yet at the same time, when people look at the footage and they see me, they think, ‘Was that all? Could it have been 23 years ago?’ Because all these issues are still with us.”

Are they? Heck yes. “Look at the mayor of San Diego, or look at Jonathan Martin,” says Hill, referring to alleged serial harasser Bob Filner, now resigned, and the NFL player who was tormented on the job. “These episodes just keep coming up over and over again. We know that in 1991 we started to really understand and to take it seriously. But I think in 2014 we have an opportunity to take it seriously for the young women who are on campuses, and the young women who are in the military. And for the women in workplaces that have not gone addressed.”

We forget that sexual harassment law almost didn’t exist 30 years ago. And yet, how is it possible that all these years later, after Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama, a Democrat, first called Hill a “scorned woman” and Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a Republican, referred to all that “sexual harassment crap,” we still have Sandra Fluke? Doesn’t that depress Anita Hill? Do we treat women any better than we did 20 years ago, in the workplace or in public discourse about the workplace?

Hill says there is a difference: “What I am hoping,” she says, “is that this movie will shed a light on the process of 1991 and people can ask themselves, are our processes any better today? Are our policies more responsive today? And I think they clearly are better because I hear from a lot of women that after 1991 it wasn’t just that women started to file complaints, but they went into their employment arenas and said, ‘This has got to change, we’ve got to let people know what their rights are, we have to stop the culture of our workplaces that support and suborn these behaviors.’ … There is still work to be done. It took a lot of very brave women for us to get here. People say, ‘I thought we’d already fixed that problem.’ No. But we’ve acknowledged it.”

That’s the most brutal part of the film: reliving the complete and systemic failure to acknowledge what Hill was saying, the failure to take her seriously, the failure to call her corroborating witnesses. In the end, Joe Biden, then-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and the Democrats who failed her come out looking almost as bad as the Republicans who called her names. One of the most crazy-making aspects of the film is that we are forced to watch 14 white male senators persistently refuse to make eye contact with Hill – their eyes roll around the room like Cookie Monster’s – while they grill her for almost nine hours on the lurid details of penis length, large breasts, Long Dong Silver, and the pubic hair in the Coke can. Over and over, each thinking he is the Perry Mason of Porn. Yet Hill answers, repeatedly, politely, clarifying and explaining that she is not making a formal sexual harassment claim; that she didn’t ask to come forward and testify. She never loses it, even when the viewer desperately wants her to.

It’s not until we arrive at Clarence Thomas’ “high-tech lynching” speech that the room stills. The proceeding is completely under Thomas’ control. The hearing is effectively over.

“I had a gender and he had a race,” says Hill in the film. I ask her what that means. “They portrayed him as an African-American who could use the lynching metaphor to his advantage.”

How did it feel to bite back her own anger while Thomas gave full vent to his? “I don’t use my anger as a strategy. And I think that’s what he was doing. That was a strategy. I don’t even know how real it was.”

Hill doesn’t just want to teach young people a history lesson. She wants them to see, too, how things have turned out just fine for her. The second half of Anita shows Hill in her new life, teaching law at Brandeis, in a long-term relationship, love-bombed by family, and surrounded by young women seeking to learn from her experience. The fact that so few young people have heard of her is staggering.

Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.

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