I forgot to link to my Bitch review of the new documentary film directed by Frieda Lee Mock, Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, possibly because I hadn’t said what I wanted to say, or how I imagined I’d say it. There is always more. Everything is always unfinished.
Here are some notes, some rough cuts:
There are a lot more laughs than you’d expect in Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, the new documentary about the (in)famous Hill-Thomas Senate hearings in 1991. I didn’t laugh, though, at least not the first time I saw the documentary, directed by Freida Lee Mock, whose Oscar-winning documentary Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1995) was also headed by—both on-screen and behind the screen—what we tend to call a “strong woman” dealing with issues impacted by all of us, strong women and weak men alike.
I didn’t laugh but I felt other things, like the salt in the room of the hearing, the damp-like green-money carpet, the gulf between the committee and Anita Hill where several bodies could have been laid, the stony crowd on site, and the enraged public. I felt all of those things and more.
The most pressing public, in the way that the government is public, was the all-white male Senate committee, all fourteen of them. It was as though Hill was on trial and you could smell the doubt. In 1991, it was a political spectacle. And what now?
The documentary consists of new interviews, footage from the Senate hearings, and film from Hill’s more public work, mostly talks and teaching. Documentaries are often read for their socio-political explication and not their abstraction. Mock is of that lineage of American filmmakers committed to biography as a route to ethical practice whereby U.S. social issues become succinct and sequential. Anita the film is obviously a portrait, not a revolution.
In the early 1990s, though, perhaps the event felt more like a revolution: sexual harassment wasn’t part of the national conversation. Now, some would argue, it is. We throw around phrases like “rape culture” that sometimes allow dudes to attempt to describe our environment almost as a way to resign responsibility. While the Hill-Thomas hearings were important in the history of women and their role in the workplace, it’s also a fuck you to “leaning in.” The professional world, like the world, isn’t a cute place to be a woman.
The point of the documentary drawing on present-day NYC groups like Girls for Gender Equity and Hollaback! is to show that Anita Hill is not alone. If Mock’s Maya Lin was Maya Lin and not Maya, the time now calls for Beyonce, Rihanna, Hillary, Anita. We know who we’re talking about —heroines and rock stars—but who are we talking to?
The Hill-Thomas case was so important exactly because we saw how the law worked in spite of or because of itself. Anita ends with a clear accent on what street harassment looks like and the groups working to end it. However, what does justice look like? Does “fighting” sexual harassment in places like Brooklyn and Harlem mean more police presence, more arrests and more people of color incarcerated?
Maya Lin, the 1994 documentary about an artist who created famous monuments like the Vietnam Memorial Wall and the Civil Rights Foundation Memorial, also centered on a woman’s work. “I really did mean for people to cry,” Maya Lin said in the first few minutes of the film. Whether or not Hill wants people to cry, although, according to the comments some Jezebel and xoJane readers certainly did, is not the point. Sentimentality isn’t bred here. A similarity between both Maya Lin and Anita, beyond the eponymous titles, is that one woman’s work, and her relationship to the state, are usable flags for how far we’ve come or how far we’ve yet to go.