Anita: Sundance Review

Enthralling and revealing portrait of Anita Hill, whose Senate Judiciary testimony led the country to recognize workplace sexual harassment.

Freida Mock tells the riveting story of Anita Hill, whose testimony against Clarence Thomas led to the recognition of sexual harassment in the workplace.

PARK CITY -- Some people achieve greatness and some people have it thrust upon them: Anita Hill did both, insofar as she was a reluctant participant in the sensationalized Senate Judiciary hearings for the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1991.

This intelligent and comprehensive documentary not only conveys the genuine nature of Hill herself, but also recreates the national sensibility of the time, an era when sexual harassment in the workplace was not yet a national concern. Mixing in footage from the period, including the surreal Senate hearings, as befuddled older white males tried to comprehend the existence of sexual harassment, Anita is a stirring personal as well as sociological document. In Freida Mock’s thoughtful and quietly powerful film, Hill speaks openly and candidly about her harrowing experiences in 1991 and how they have shaped her life and her work in the past two decades.

For Sundance festival-goers too young to remember the bizarre judicial occasion, it began as Hill, a humble law professor, answered an FBI inquiry about her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about his suitability to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. She dutifully filled it out, noting that Thomas’ behavior toward her had been sexually inappropriate. To her surprise and chagrin, Hill was subpoenaed to testify, and she was thrust into the national spotlight.  

VIDEO: THR's Sundance Google Hangout with Freida Mock and Anita Hill

The press sensationalized the hearings, and the nation was both captivated and titillated when Hill was grilled about the specifics: Thomas had subjected her to crude references to his sexual endowment, made repeated “date” overtures and offered crude comments involving a crack about pubic hair on a Coke can.

The self-effacing law professor would have preferred the quiet anonymity of a classroom to any national spotlight, especially one as glaring and controversial as what transpired. Hill was caught in the crossfire of rabid partisan politics, with Republicans suspecting that she was, perhaps, a weapon to “Bork” their nominee. With the firm farm-girl strength of her upbringing and the diplomatic grace of the Yale Law graduate she was, Hill was composed and impressive, despite enduring questioning that was more appropriate for a charged criminal than a solid citizen.

Through it all, the articulate and poised Hill rendered nearly nine hours of testimony before a Senate committee chaired by Joe Biden, who was flanked by Ted Kennedy. The latter's presence, considering his reputation, was a source of Saturday Night Live humor.

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On his part, Thomas later defiantly played the race card in his testimony before the same committee, characterizing the hearings as a “high-tech lynching.” The all-white committee cowered, and Thomas was confirmed in a dogfight 52-48 Senate vote.

Through it all, Hill’s testimony spurred the awareness of sexual harassment. In filmmaker Mock’s comprehensive portrait, Hill emerges as a catalytic figure: Young women today regard her as a heroine for the brave impetus she gave to society’s recognition of the existence of sexual harassment.