NEW YORK — Audiences at the recent Manhattan premiere of “Anita” rose to their feet and burst into applause when the film’s subject walked onstage. It has been nearly 23 years since Anita Hill testified at the US Senate hearings on then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, yet emotions about her often shocking testimony still run high.
Subtitled “Speaking Truth to Power,” “Anita” represents a coming out of sorts for Hill, who has been largely out of the public eye since becoming a Brandeis University professor 16 years ago. But it is also, by design, a vehicle for Hill to share her views on racial and gender inequality with members of a younger generation for whom the Senate hearings are ancient history.
In October 1991, Hill’s testimony on live television riveted the nation and sparked a passionate debate about sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere. It threatened the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee, embarrassed an all-white male Senate committee seeking to challenge her credibility, and helped spur congressional action allowing victims of sex discrimination to seek federal damage awards.
At the Manhattan theater last month, a polished, poised Hill, now 57, answered questions from the audience about the historic hearings. No, she’s not bitter, she said, and, yes, the harassment problem is still with us, underscored by recent news stories about sexual assaults in the military and on college campuses.
“It’s time to start that conversation again,” Hill said forcefully, “to move us to the next level.” Clearly, she added, waiting for elected officials to act is not enough.
The documentary, which opens in the Boston area on Friday, may help jump-start that conversation.
Directed by Academy Award winner Freida Mock, it begins on a jarring note, with a phone message left for Hill in October 2010 by Virginia Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas, who was narrowly approved by the Senate and has gone on to reliably vote with the court’s conservative bloc. Ginni Thomas asked whether Hill were ready to apologize to her husband, or to admit her 1991 testimony was fraudulent. At first Hill thought it was a prank. Once the tape was made public, Hill now says, the reaction from women’s groups and others helped convince her to collaborate with Mock on the documentary.
“People are still angry and passionate about this. There’s a lot they haven’t resolved about those hearings,” Hill reflected in an interview at her Manhattan hotel. “I wanted them to see the journey I’ve been through, that I’ve had a very fulfilling life. Because some thought, ‘She’s gone away. She got beaten up. Now she’s feeling sad all the time about this.’ Yet I’ve done a lot of things I’m very proud of. I’m still alive and kicking.”
Hill currently holds a dual appointment at Brandeis as a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and as senior adviser to university provost Steve Goldstein. She chairs the university’s Diversity Steering Committee and has published two books — one examining the impact of the recent housing crisis on women and minorities — plus academic papers in such areas as educational policy and equality.
Hill, says Goldstein, is “a consummate academic and collaborative pillar of the Brandeis community,” someone widely respected for her insight into issues like community outreach and access to academic opportunity. “You could not find someone more respected and beloved on the Brandeis campus,” he added.
While Hill’s interactions with Clarence Thomas have been “painful to re-live,” she admits in the film, she has made a point to carry the lessons she learned to a younger generation. In her off-campus speaking engagements, she encourages women to “find their voices,” as she puts it, as she has used hers to bring issues like sexual harassment and gender discrimination to the fore.
At one point, the film shows Hill at a 2011 conference on sexual harassment and gender issues in New York public schools. Students are shown discussing how they might react in the face of sexually offensive or aggressive behavior. Their resolve to stand up for themselves prompts Hill to remark, “I can retire now, and the next generation is in good hands.”
Many of Hill’s current students at Brandeis weren’t born yet at the time of the Senate hearings. For viewers too young to have witnessed them in real time, “Anita” is both a history lesson and compelling biography of a young law professor abruptly thrust into the national spotlight.
The youngest of 13 children born to a rural Oklahoma family, Hill graduated from Oklahoma State University and Yale Law School. In 1981, she went to work for Thomas in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. When Thomas was later appointed chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Hill became his assistant, serving in that position until 1983.
At the time of the Senate hearings, she was teaching law at the University of Oklahoma. Thomas’s nomination by President George H.W. Bush to fill the seat once held by civil-rights hero Thurgood Marshall was already fraught with controversy when Hill was summoned to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
For seven riveting hours, she accused Thomas of making unwanted advances and of making multiple references to pornographic films and his own sexual prowess. The senators, looking at times uncomfortable or incredulous, heard testimony about a porn film star named Long Dong Silver and about such bizarre incidents as Thomas allegedly looking at a soda can and asking Hill, “Who put pubic hair on my Coke?”
The panel included Democrats Joe Biden and Edward M. Kennedy and Republicans Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter, who led the grilling of Hill. Kennedy, chastised for saying little during the hearings, was embroiled in a family sexual scandal of his own at the time, the Palm Beach rape case against nephew William Kennedy Smith.
Biden, the committee chairman, was also criticized by women’s groups for failing to call other witnesses who claimed they had been sexually harassed by Thomas. Hill says that was a missed opportunity to buttress her case.
“That cast this as a ‘he said, she said’ situation, even though these women had been subpoenaed and sat waiting for three days to testify,” Hill recalled in the interview. “That was a clear disservice to the process and to the American public.”
Biden’s second misstep, she says, was failing to call expert witnesses on what constitutes sexual harassment. “The committee kept asking ill-informed questions, not understanding it,” she said. “They wouldn’t have made the same statements on the record had they heard expert testimony.”
At one point in the film, committee member Alan Simpson dismissively refers to “that sexual harassment crap.” Other senators seemed equally clueless, she says, about verbal behavior that could make a workplace subordinate feel uncomfortable or threatened. Thomas, for his part, angrily denied Hill’s accusations and later wrote a memoir in which he called her his “most traitorous adversary.”
In portraying Hill’s journey from private citizen to public figure, “Anita” also draws back the curtain on her personal life. Viewers are introduced to her large, tight-knit family and to her longtime boyfriend, Boston businessman Chuck Malone. The two met in Waltham 15 years ago. Malone has been traveling with Hill to events like the Manhattan screenings.
“For me, it’s a walk down memory lane,” Malone said of the film. “But it’s also a revelation to see what [Hill] and her supporters, including her family, went through then.”
Also attending one of the screenings were members of the Brooklyn-based advocacy group Girls for Gender Equity. Hill’s work with the group, which helps high schoolers deal with such issues as sexual harassment and sexual assault, is briefly captured in the documentary. Three young organizers for the group gathered afterward to talk about Hill’s efforts to empower young women.
By telling her story, Hill “allows young women of color to tell their own stories in the face of adversity,” said Nefertiti Martin, 23. “Too often, their voices are pushed to the margins. They’re told to be seen and not heard.”
Natasha Adams, 21, said what struck her about watching footage of the 1991 hearings was the “intentional humiliation” forced on Hill by members of the Senate committee.
“One of the salient points she brings up is the process, how we let sexual harassment happen,” said Adams. “It’s really about the process, about [girls and women] having conversations with the men in their lives to undo a lot of the patriarchy that promotes sexual violence.”
Hill is especially gratified her work has that kind of meaning today.
At Brandeis, she says, she expected to continue teaching law. But she became more interested in the relationship between law and social policy in the areas of race and gender. One course she has taught, “Social Justice and the Obama Administration,” examines policy initiatives like the Affordable Heath Care Act and its impact on society’s most marginalized citizens.
Megan Madison is pursuing a doctorate at Brandeis under Hill’s supervision. Until arriving on campus, Madison, 26, knew little about Hill’s testimony and its impact. But for female students of color like herself, says Madison, Hill immediately stood out as a sympathetic ear.
“She has an amazing capacity to listen carefully before suggesting solutions,” Madison said. “That plus her integrity and knowledge of race and gender issues make her pretty unique.”
Among the projects Hill hopes to tackle during a planned sabbatical next year is cataloging the thousands of letters that poured in after the ’91 hearings, many still unread.
“Even if you just look at the film for that process and the lessons learned about it, that helps people figure out what went wrong here,” Hill said. “It’s almost a case study to help schools or workplaces or the military figure out what needs to be done.”
Young people “ask themselves, ‘What will our generation do? What problems are we going to tackle?’ ” Hill added. “They believe they can do better than their parents’ generation” — she paused and laughed — “which is good. We want them to.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.