The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off, and then it will make you want to get in a time machine and murder every Republican senator in 1991. That's how that saying goes, right?
I was surprised by how angry Anita: Speaking Truth to Power made me. I was 13 years old when this hearing took place, and I remember the calm, composed woman in her blue suit filling that cavernous, baroque room with the details of the sexual harassment she said she endured from her former boss, Clarence Thomas. Then, as now, I was taken by how evenly and rhythmically she detailed what had happened to her, ranging from his graphic discussion of pornography to casually mentioning a pubic hair on his can of Coke. I remember the lights bouncing off of her skin as she stared down a row of senators, fearlessly correcting them when they tried to twist her words and wear her out, reminding them of her confidence as she tirelessly defended her character. My only reference point for this sort of setup was the courtrooms I'd seen on TV, and I absolutely thought she was on trial.
This documentary made me retroactively angry that this hearing took place in such an accusatory manner, framing Anita Hill as a woman on trial instead of a private citizen fulfilling her civic duty. The Republican senators ran her through the wringer, even though most of them boldly declared to not even know how to define sexual harassment. Hill was tasked with both explaining and defending herself against a concept these men could barely understand, and if that doesn't make you want to light something on fire, nothing will.
When Clarence Thomas had a chance to tell his side of things, he had the balls to call Hill's testimony a "high-tech lynching," and he quickly changed the story—it was no longer about the sexual harassment of Anita Hill, but the racial victimization of Clarence Thomas. I don't think I realized the importance of that moment when I was originally watching the trial in 1991, but Clarence Thomas, strategically, is a diabolical genius. This panel full of white men didn't want to touch the issue of race with a 10-foot pole, so they shirked their responsibility altogether and made him a Supreme Court justice. Twenty years later, his wife, Ginni, has the nerve to reach out to Hill "across the airwaves and the years" in the phone call that starts this documentary and leave her a message asking for an apology. My brain turned into a blob of sadness hugged by the strong arms of rage when I heard Ginni Thomas's lilting voice pour through that machine. How have we failed women so completely? Specifically, how have we failed black women so completely?
The film does a great job of highlighting the path leading to the hearing—how the Senate originally ignored her statement, how it took women protesting and demanding justice for them to reconvene, and how the message received was that no one is going to take sexual harassment seriously, not even the US Senate. This question is at the heart of this film, and it's one that I still hear echoed in feminist circles, on college campuses, and in workplaces around the world: What will it take for you to take sexual harassment seriously? What will it take for you to take women seriously?
Women are reluctant to report sexual harassment and assault because our judicial system fails to support them at every turn when they do, and Hill's reluctance is present throughout. She has nothing to gain from her testimony and indicates more than once that it would have been more comfortable for her to remain silent. This hearing completely changed the trajectory of her life, uprooting her from her small Oklahoma town, where she was the first African American to be a tenured professor at the law school where she taught, and throwing her into the national spotlight, where she received bomb threats, death threats, and threats of sexual assault. But Hill's clarity is remarkable, and her message has been the same since she originally filed her statement—I can't prove the harassment happened, but I can tell my story.
And her enduring story is the main reason to see this documentary. Hill rises like a well-dressed phoenix out of the ashes of the US justice system to be a dominant force in law, publishing, and helping other girls and women tell their stories. Faced with the prospect of hiding forever or telling her story, Hill decided to talk. She's a powerhouse of motion and energy, buoyed by the 25,000 letters she's received from women over the past 20 years that she keeps neatly in metal file cabinets in her basement. Hill is a superstar, the historic center of events that will ripple out for generations.
But what about Clarence Thomas, the fiery catalyst of this heated debate?
Thomas has not spoken during a court argument in more than seven years, and he is the impotent right-hand man to an ineffective justice system. One day, he will die and forever be a footnote in the worst part of our collective history.
In the end, Anita Hill won her public trial after all.