“I had a gender and he had a race,” says Anita Hill about two-thirds of the way through Anita, an ineffectual informational documentary about her role in the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The “he” is Hill’s former boss, Clarence Thomas. Nominated for the Supreme Court by George H.W. Bush, Thomas underwent a contentious confirmation process, which climaxed with Hill testifying about the continual sexual harassment she claimed to have endured while working for him. A media circus ensued, focusing on the “he said, she said” (or, more accurately, “he said, she had witnesses”) side of the story. Then, Thomas accused the all-white Senate Judiciary Committee of participating in a “high-tech lynching,” effectively changing the conversation from workplace sexual harassment to racism. The hearings touched on seemingly every topic that makes American public figures uncomfortable, and ended with Thomas on his way to a narrow-margin confirmation as an associate justice of the Supreme Court—a post he’s held ever since.
The problems with Anita start with director Freida Lee Mock’s attempt to fit this story into the template of a generic empowerment narrative. Mock, who won an Oscar for the mostly forgotten Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, directs in a non-compelling, TV-ready style; if viewers close their eyes, the only thing they’ll miss will be the names of the talking heads. Her thesis—laid out, classroom-documentary-style, in the first few minutes—is that Hill is a feminist icon whose testimony led to widespread social change. This reductive take on Hill’s moment in the national spotlight is supported by unconvincing interviewee testimonials, which reiterate that Hill is important, but not why or how. Along the way, Anita repeatedly succumbs to hero worship, drawing attention away from the social forces working against Hill and ignoring the nitty-gritty detail work of feminism in favor of a sugary empowerment high.
The actual footage of Hill’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee shows a conversation between a shy woman and a group of men, some of them incredulous, all of them visibly uncomfortable. Hill is forced to repeat, in clinical detail, statements Thomas made about large breasts, pubic hair, and Long Dong Silver, the ’80s porn star who wore an 18-inch prosthetic penis. After Thomas makes his accusation, Joe Biden, then the head of the committee, responds with a look that suggests a dog who’s been caught in a bear trap and is seriously considering gnawing through his own leg.
The footage is discomfiting and fascinating in how it draws out social undercurrents. Perhaps fearing that it’s not empowering enough, Mock soundtracks it with plinky piano music and intercuts it with talking heads who continually explain how a particular moment showcases Hill’s strength or Thomas’ deviousness. (A viewer may wonder whether the original televised testimony included so many instances of the same unflattering zoom-in on the face of Thomas’ wife, Tea Party power player Virginia Lamp.) Aside from an outtake that rolls over the credits, wherein Hill digs out the turquoise suit she wore to the hearings, this 23-year-old TV footage ends up being the most compelling thing about Anita.
Hill’s case certainly raises important issues, touching on the complex social and professional dynamics that she had to navigate as both a woman and a person of color trying to make a career in law and politics. But the film downplays all of that in favor of an artificially inflated triumphant arc, ending with scenes of Hill speaking to applauding crowds. Her story is one that deserves to be told. Perhaps one day, someone will bother telling it.