Truth and Consequences

Another side of the Supreme Court’s Clarence Thomas

Pictured: Anita Hill at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 1991.

On October 9, 1991, during televised proceedings, an arresting young woman in an eye-catching aqua linen dress testified to the character of her male supervisor, stating that he had repeatedly made graphic sexual comments and unwarranted sexual overtures towards her while she was employed by the U.S. Department of EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

The woman was Anita Hill, the first African American professor tenured by the University of Oklahoma College of Law. The man was Clarence Thomas, African American nominee to replace retiring Thurgood Marshall on the U. S. Supreme Court. The proceedings were Thomas’ confirmation hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee, a group of 14 white men. Those few days changed the course of Anita’s life and planted the seeds that revolutionized an entire body law.

The author with Anita Hill at the opening of “Anita” at Kendall Landmark Cinema.

Academy-Award winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock’s splendid new documentary film, “Anita: Speaking Truth To Power,” tells this story with archival footage, contemporary interviews, and scrapbook-like glimpses of Anita’s family stories. The result is as good as documentaries get: the audience learns, feels and questions.

Mock opens her film on October 9, 2010, with Ginni Thomas’ voice message to Ms. Hill, asking her to consider apologizing for what she did to her husband when she testified at his 1991 Senate confirmation hearings

“I am reaching across the airwaves,” Mrs. Thomas said. “I pray about this.”

“That phone call is symbolic of the story,” Mock pointed out in a conversation with the Journal. “It represented how relevant and resonant and raw the issue of the hearing is almost 20 years later. It is still on people’s minds, and it still evokes an immediate response.”

“Anita” lays out the historical chronology of the events clearly, yet with enough nuance and depth to engage both cinemaphile and attorney. Lili Haydn’s score accomplishes her goal to “tickle the heart as the words tickle the brain.”

The youngest of 13 children, Ms. Hill grew up in a rural Oklahoma farming family, exhibiting the dignity, poise and intelligence she displayed at the hearings from an early age. She graduated from Yale Law School and worked in Washington D.C. as special counsel to Clarence Thomas. Because of that work connection, the FBI contacted her for a routine character background check on Thomas when Republican President Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court. Ms. Hill filled out the questionnaire and sent it to the Senate, assuming it would be confidential. Somehow, it was leaked to the press, and Ms. Hill found herself a reluctant witness at the confirmation hearings.

From that moment on, her life would never be the same.

The hearings were an excruciating example of democracy run amok with senator after senator grilling Ms. Hill with questions and comments meant to humiliate, embarrass and confront.

“Are you a scorned woman?” drawled Senator Heflin of Alabama. “Do you have a martyr complex?” Never had there been such an attack on a witness with nothing to gain.

“People didn’t understand,” Ms. Hill said. “They thought I was on trial. The issue became my character instead of the character of the nominee.”

Thomas denied Ms. Hill’s allegations, dismissing them as a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” The Senate confirmed him 52 to 48 and he sits on the Supreme Court today, where his conservative vote is often the fifth in the Court’s frequent 5-4 decisions, including Bush v. Gore.

For Ms. Hill, the hearings’ immediate aftermath was not as rosy. “The hearings changed my life,” she reflected, “the way I see the world.” She received death threats; the press hounded her. The conservative republican state legislators tried to close the law school when they realized Ms. Hill’s tenure prevented them from firing her.

Yet, her testimony also unleashed a national discussion and awareness of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Congress passed tougher laws with more protections and remedies for victims. Since 1991, the numbers of sexual harassment claims and women elected to public office has surged.

“Despite the high cost, it was worth having the truth come out,” Ms. Hill acknowledged. “People misunderstand that harassment is about the sex. It’s really about the control and the power.”

After years spent deliberately out of the spotlight, the deeply private Ms. Hill decided that the time had come to tell her story. A friend recommended she watch Freida Mock’s documentary about Tony Kushner, and Ms. Hill connected with Mock’s style. Three years in the making, “Anita” debuted to sold-out crowds at the renowned Sundance Film Festival.

“I wanted people to understand who Anita is and why she did what she did. In the sensationalism of the hearings, I felt the story of Anita Hill was lost,” Mock said.

“Anita” is a brilliant, engaging, enraging but ultimately uplifting film. Ms. Hill’s bravery, generosity and intelligence pierce the dark murky residue left by those 14 senators some 20 years ago. Her legacy empowers a new generation facing the same old issues of gender and workplace inequalities.

“If I am not public, then there will be a sense of victory that they will have over me,” Hill said. “I try to live each day with a heart full of grace.”

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