If you were alive in 1991, the televised images may still stick in your mind and your craw: the young African-American woman in the powder-blue jacket, a law professor explaining with dignified mortification to a gallery of old white politicians how the man she once worked for asked her out on dates when he wasn’t discussing hard-core pornography or his penis size. How this instilled in her a profound sense of unease, even fear, and how a man who does such a thing might not deserve to sit on the United States Supreme Court.
If you were alive then, you probably remember what happened next. The Senate quickly disbanded its investigation after Judiciary Committee chairman Joe Biden left a number of Anita Hill’s corroboratory witnesses waiting in the wings. Clarence Thomas’s nomination narrowly passed the Senate, putting him on the nation’s highest court. Hill was crucified by conservatives and right-wing journalists — David Brock memorably tarred her as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” before recanting his comments a few years later — while the subject of workplace harassment and sexualized office environments was finally out in the open.
If you weren’t alive then, well, you live in a world Anita Hill helped make possible (and Thomas, too, for different reasons), and you should probably understand why. Frieda Mock’s documentary “Anita” is a dutiful history lesson even as it brings us closer to the very private person at the center of that long-ago, still relevant storm.
Mock, who won an Oscar for her 1994 documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” alternates history and hagiography in “Anita”; the former is necessary, the latter merely nice. The film’s first half is its most compelling. As the filmmaker cuts between archival news footage of the hearings and Hill’s comparatively quiet life today — she’s a law professor at Brandeis University, in Waltham — a viewer realizes two things: how unprepared Hill was to be a cultural lightning rod 23 years ago and how well she has since cut the role to fit her reserved personality. She’s content with her place in history. That’s not the same as saying it was easy.
Indeed, the image of Hill — young, black, professional, and poised — being grilled by aging senators who seem actively hostile or passively clueless is more disconcerting than ever two decades on. The hearing exposed a gender chasm: Women supporters rallied around Hill (and helped elect more female senators and congresswomen in the next round of elections) while too many men in the media and elsewhere made her character the issue, rather than Thomas’s. After the investigation, Hill returned to her teaching job at the University of Oklahoma College of Law only to face death threats, bomb threats, and repeated attempts to have her (or, failing that, her boss) fired.
Mock sketches in her subject’s background, a story as American as they come: Descended from slaves and raised in Oklahoma, Hill was the youngest of 13 children, a high school valedictorian, and a graduate of Yale Law. Her parents were farmers; both sat behind her at the 1991 hearings. Mock got close enough to accompany Hill to a recent family wedding with her longtime companion, Waltham restaurateur Chuck Malone.
For all that, you sense the lost opportunities in “Anita.” It’s no surprise that Clarence Thomas wasn’t interviewed (although the film does open with audio of the infamous 2010 voice mail from Ginny Thomas asking Hill to apologize for “what you did to my husband”), but it would be still worthwhile to have some larger insights on how Hill’s testimony inflamed the political as well as the gender divide.
And even though Mock includes footage of Hill speaking to adulatory audiences at colleges and elsewhere, we get no sense of how much or how little things have changed for women in the workplace. In one scene, a young woman is visibly distraught as she comes to the microphone to praise Hill and ask a question. What’s the story there? Has our society really progressed when New Jersey investigators can blame Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” on a female staffer’s “emotional” response to a soured romantic relationship?
“Anita “ is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Neither have we.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.