Saturday, April 5, 2014

Anita Hill, Unsung Heroine

Anita Hill, testifying to Senate committee in 1991.

She's been hiding in plain sight, a law school professor whose name is a magnet to enterprising neophytes eager to learn the ropes and, if possible, to hear her story first-hand. Anita Hill reveals it all simply and tastily in a new documentary, Anita: Speaking Truth To Power.

The film covers her life, before, during, and after the Senate confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas in 1991, without looking sycophantic or sentimental. Interviews not only with Hill, but with some of the people who worked with her at the time of the hearings and some who know her now. It presents her in a positive light, but I hardly see how anything could be produced that would do otherwise.

The youngest of 13 children, Hill was raised on a farm in Lone Tree, OK, after her parents had relocated the family from Arkansas, where her father had been subtly warned he was soon to be lynched by some local hell-raisers. How the Hills prevailed is remarkable, and how their youngest daughter would turn out so brilliantly, so balanced, so wise, is practically a miracle. Both parents, especially the mother, shine through the story.

An idealistic young lawyer, Anita Hill went to work in a office where her superior (Thomas) made unwelcome advances. Footage of her at this age reveal an extremely beautiful woman, smiling and looking to be lit from within. (Peripheral to the tale is how well dressed she seems to have been all her life, how casually she can look elegant, what an tasteful and attractive wardrobe she had and still has. I only mention this because the blue suit she wore at the hearings became iconic just because it was what she wore at that time; the suit itself is simply perfect.)

Hill had to endure this man's insensitive, suggestive comments, because he was her boss. Although Hill is far too articulate to put it this way, it seems he gave her the creeps--so much so that she remembered the lascivious things he said for seven years, long after they had both gone on to other jobs and had no contact with each other. When she heard he was being nominated to the Supreme Court, she felt she ought to speak up. Her interviews with the FBI led the Senate to reconvene confirmation hearings in order to hear what she had to say.

Anita Hill didn't know that those white men had already made up their minds. She didn't think she'd have to explain how his comments made her feel, or that they planned, for the most part, to dismiss her as a crazy slut, talking nonsense. The documentary reveals her sincerity, her simply honesty, and the intellect and poise that kept her focused through a grueling seven hours. No one could have predicted that Thomas would turn the spotlight back on himself with righteous indignation at "being lynched." Apparently he was indignant about being caught out at behavior he considered inconsequential. He denied it with such vehemence that at best one could assume he has a very subjective memory. He was not asked to explain how anything Hill had said amounted to a lynching, or even to defend any of his bad behavior in the workplace.

When it happened, it was the first time I heard the expression "playing the race card." The white men he faced apparently felt way more guilty about race than about sex. His testimony worked so immediately that it erased the whole seven hours that preceded it. Thomas was in like Flynn.

In the meantime, Anita Hill went back to work at the University of Oklahoma, where she had tenure. Asked to comment from time to time, she always declined, but her story haunted her and after a few years she took a job teaching at Brandeis.

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power takes up the rest of her life, and it's full of good news. She's at last gotten some credit for defining sexual harassment for years to come. It's a stunning trip. It could change a lot of lives.

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power is playing locally at the Rosendale, the little indie theater in the next town over. If you're anywhere near Rosendale, NY, I recommend you take it in tonight--or at the matinee on Wednesday or Thursday night at 7:15.  Plenty of chances to see a movie that you'll never forget about a woman who should always be remembered.

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