Ian Berke, realtor and real estate in San Francisco
Ian's Listings
SF listings
About SF
About Ian
Ian's List
Film Reviews
Stone Books
Legal & Privacy

tel 415.921.7300
cell 415.860.2777

DRE #444020


Film Review

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power

Anita Hill is a name from a time and place that seems like ancient history to many, especially if you are under 40. The archival footage of Hill's testimony about sexual harassment in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 is jarring, and even surreal. Yet her testimony was a transformative event for working women in America. Every woman had had her own experience with workplace sexual harassment, but until these hearings, it was widely considered to be something that women had to endure from "boys being boys".

Freida Lee Mock is a well known documentary film maker whose credits include Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994), which won an Oscar for best feature length documentary film. She has also done a number of short award winning documentaries, such as Rose Kennedy: A Life to Remember (1991), Never Give Up (1995), and Return with Honor (1998), about American POW's in Vietnam. Wrestling with Angels (2006), the life of the playwright Tony Kushner, also won a number of awards. Mock has been drawn to women's stories and had long been interested in doing a film on Anita Hill. Hill was teaching women's studies at Brandeis and was reluctant to revisit the controversy. But as the 20th anniversary of the Clarence Thomas hearings loomed, a friend introduced her to Mock, and the result is now on the big screen, Anita: Speaking Truth to Power.

Anita opens with a voicemail to Hill from Virginia Thomas, Clarence Thomas' wife: "Consider an apology…", which Hill initially thought was a hoax call. Then we see archival footage of the Senate Judiciary Committee as a young, poised black woman begins to describe some of the events from when she worked as an assistant to Clarence Thomas, then head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. She described conversations 8 years earlier by Thomas that were raw blatant examples of sexual harassment. Thomas had just been nominated by President George H. W. Bush for a seat on the Supreme Court. Hill was then teaching business law at the University of Oklahoma. All candidates to a judicial appointment are vetted by the FBI. Upon hearing of Thomas' nomination, Hill responded to the FBI's inquiry, describing these incidents. Someone leaked her letter, and the head of the SJC, Joe Biden (now of course Vice President) decided to have her testify in front of his committee. The SJC consisted of ten older men, all white of course, most of whom seemed stunned by Hill's testimony. In a very calm manner, she described a number of instances of sexual harassment over several years, including the now infamous pubic hair in a Coke can incident and Thomas' reference to his penis size (Long Dong Silver). But many on the Committee were disbelieving, and several, most notably Alan Simpson (Wyoming) was openly skeptical and claimed that he had received many letters and phone calls, all saying that "no one should trust that woman". The footage of him making that statement could have been lifted straight from a McCarthy hearing in 1950, during his infamous Communist witch hunts. Suddenly what was intended to be testimony about sexual harassment became the trial of Anita Hill, with conservative media and politicians claiming that liberals were only trying to derail a conservative nominee for the Supreme Court. Biden did not handle this well. Although he permitted four associates of Hill to testify that she had complained to them at the time about sexual harassment from Thomas, Biden refused to permit other women from testifying, all of whom had similar complaints about Thomas. Hill became a double victim; first by sexual harassment, then by the smear campaign on her character and truthfulness. Thomas played the race card masterfully, claiming that he was the victim of a "high tech lynching". This tactic caught the SJC off guard, and even those who felt that Thomas was not Supreme Court material didn't know how to respond. Hill took a polygraph test, and passed. Thomas refused. Ultimately Thomas was confirmed by a 52 to 48 vote, split largely between party lines. Mock includes riveting archival footage, including that of Representative Pat Schroeder (Colorado) leading a group of women legislators to the Senate, demanding to be heard. And there are number of good interviews such as with the authors of Strange Justice, Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer. All of this was front page news, and in the next election cycle a record number of women legislators were elected.

Ironically, both Hill and Thomas came from very modest circumstances, and overcame many hurdles, not the least of which were racism and poverty. Yet both graduated from Yale Law School, Hill with honors. Hill was born in Oklahoma, the youngest of 13 children. Her parents were farmers but determined that their children would go to college. After the hearings, Oklahoma legislators pressured the University to fire her but she was protected by tenure. But it became increasingly uncomfortable for her, and she decided to move east. She joined the faculty at Brandeis over 15 years ago, and has become an inspiration for women. Her courage, in speaking out, was remarkable. Surprisingly, many of her students shown in the film had no idea of her background. This last section of the film, although with many moving interviews, seemed less riveting and more flabby than the first half of the film which was devoted to the hearings. Surprisingly, Mock did not have any interviews with those that served on the SJC. A few had died (Arlen Specter, etc) but perhaps Mock was rebuffed in her requests. If so, that should have been noted in the her film. But most important, Mock shows us how Hill went from victim to teacher, and became an important force in the women's movement. I loved this film. In Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, Mock has produced a powerful, accomplished documentary that every young woman (and man) should see. Thanks to Hill's courage and willingness to speak truth to power, workplace sexual harassment has become a publicly recognized issue that now has significant consequences for the perps and their companies. Perhaps our military will someday catch up. Playing time: 77 minutes. Screening at the Embarcadero and the Shattuck (Berkeley).

Ciao, Ian

Return to the List of Film Reviews


Home | Ian's Listings | SF listings | Rentals | Architecture | About SF | About Ian |
Ian's List | Legal & Privacy | ian@ianberke.com | © 2009- ianberke.com