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Documentary 'Anita' offers theories, insights difficult to dismiss

The film follows the Senate hearings on the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination in 1991 that became an unintended landmark referendum on sexual harassment in the workplace.

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Eline Powell and Nico Mirallegro star in “Anita.” (Samuel Goldwyn)

Anita

(NR)

3 out of 4 stars

Arguably the highest-profile he said/she said event in modern history, the Senate hearings on the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination in 1991 quickly evolved into something that extended far beyond politics and became an unintended landmark referendum on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Even for those who fervently followed the proceedings, the reasons for the presence of Anita Hill at the hearings might still be sketchy — despite the sordid details and nebulous fallout. The truth — at least as what most of us understand to be the definition of the truth regarding what transpired between Thomas and Hill — is still unproven and up for debate. This new documentary doesn’t do anything to clarify that situation but does provide theories and insights that are difficult to dismiss.

The most glaring and hardest to ignore facets of the story would be the motive on the part of Hill — a guardedly private woman who shunned the limelight in all of its forms — to come forth and make the accusation that Thomas clumsily hit on her in the ’80s when both worked for the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

Some may feel that director Freida Lee Mock’s unusually short (77 minute) film provides something of a disservice to Hill, whose life was irrevocably changed after the Thomas hearings. The (mostly Democratic) senators that sat on the panel (which included the late Ted Kennedy and chairman, now vice president Joe Biden), treated Hill as an opportunistic grandstander or worse, a spurned would-be lover out for revenge.

The film finds its greatest success by revealing what most of the world didn’t see during the infamous day-long grilling of Hill — who never lost her composure or cool — at the hands of a band of bloated bureaucrats hellbent on finding a chink in her armor and discrediting her story. They never did. Their ineptitude continued later the same day with what some could label as a botched and misguided questioning of Thomas who, somewhat accurately, described the proceedings as a “lynching.” His intractable acrimony was convincing enough to offset Hill’s measured calm and the committee essentially punted the decision to approve Thomas’ nomination to the senate where it narrowly passed (52-48).

Devoting as much time as she needed to the event itself in the first half, Mock uses the second portion to examine the effect of the hearing on Hill’s life immediately thereafter and up to the present day. Undeterred by the committee’s passive dismissal of her testimony, Hill took a series of positions at various colleges (most recently Brandeis) and spoke — generally whenever asked — on the sexual harassment issue, which she correctly and sadly laments — has not improved.

“Anita” is a movie that every woman too young at the time of the Thomas hearings happened or with too short a memory should view, absorb and take to heart. What Hill did at first — opening herself up to an onslaught of criticism, slander and multiple death threats — would have been more than enough to test the will of most. To continue on for over two decades under the radar and with no fanfare or limelight to encourage her lends something more than credence to her original statements.

While Hill has come to terms with what has transpired and is at peace, it’s clear someone else with a secondary stake in the outcome has not. The film opens and closes with an actual phone message left for Hill recently asking for her to recant her testimony and apologize to Thomas. The caller made a major mistake by leaving a message for someone who survived so much more than sticks and stones and assumed a mild brow-beating might get her to change her tune. How wrong they were. (Samuel Goldwyn)