You don't see too many "I Believe You, Anita" bumper stickers anymore, but a new documentary film opening in Bay Area theaters Friday brings back and spins forward the nationally televised sexual harassment drama 22 years ago that pitted a young Oklahoma woman in a teal suit against a U.S. Supreme Court nominee.
"Anita Hill, Speaking Truth to Power" makes a legacy argument for Hill as a torchbearer for gender equality as it returns to the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in which Hill, then a professor at the Oklahoma School of Law, details allegations of graphic sexual harassment from nominee Clarence Thomas who was later confirmed to the high court by a vote of 52-48. It also shows what Hill has done to continue making her story relevant a generation later.
The film was written, directed and produced by San Francisco native and 1972 Cal graduate Freida Mock, whose documentaries have produced one Academy Award and five nominations.
For those who followed the saga of a young unflinching lawyer who recalled sexual talk in the workplace from Thomas, the first third of the film will be a rerun that's not particularly bombshell dropping.
Mock said the information is presented that way for a target audience of "people who weren't even born yet." Butshe conceded the reality is that those who actually go to see it in theaters will be women over age 50.
Making the film 22 years later allowed her to bring clarity from time and hindsight, she said. She started filming in 2010 after a mutual friend connected the two at Hill's request, she said. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year.
"There are just so many facts lost in the accusations and the intensity of that brilliant exchange where they really attacked her as a character witness," Mock said. "I also thought it was a good time to take a look at sexual harassment after 22 years. The issues she raised then continue to be raised now and need to be addressed, especially in the military and on college campuses."
It was in the 1980s that Thomas was Hill's boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, when Hill said the harassment took place.
The film tells the story from Hill's view, showing how 14 men on the Senate Judiciary Committee turned her testimony around so that she was defending her own credibility, and how Thomas then accused Hill of racism; both are black. Jane Mayer, a staff writer at "The New Yorker" who co-wrote a book about the hearings with Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, calls Thomas' use of race a brilliant political move that was orchestrated by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
"At that point the whole story line changed," Mayer says in the film. "It was now the racial victimization of Clarence Thomas," who during the hearing vehemently denied the allegations and called Hill's testimony a "high tech lynching."
Mock said she did not try to interview Thomas because of his reputation for not granting interviews and because "this is really her story."
The last two-thirds of the film are more interesting for those familiar with the 1991 saga in that they show what Hill has done with her life afterward.
Hill went back to Oklahoma to her job as a faculty member at the Oklahoma School of Law. She received all kinds of threats: death, violence, sexual. Republican lawmakers in her home state tried to get her fired, but she was tenured, so then they went after her boss. They even tried to close the school. She eventually moved to Massachusetts, where she is a professor at Brandeis University and has written two books, one about the hearing and one in 2012 called "Reimagining Equality, Stories of Race, Gender and Finding Home."
Mock said the movie is a story about "transformation" because Hill "rose to being a spokesperson on gender equality."
In the film, Hill said when she returned to Norman, Okla., after the hearing, she realized her life would never be the same. She had to continue what she started.
"The pressure to keep me quiet would have been so great (in Oklahoma) that I would not have been able to do what I am doing," Hill says in the film. "If I am not public, there will be a sense of victory they will have over me. Either I was going to be inside, hiding, or I was going to go out and deal with it, and I chose the latter."
The film shows her speaking in public at various events, with closeups of rapt young women hearing her story. At the end of the film, during a commencement address to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Hill tells young graduates that when they go out in the world, "honesty, dignity and courage is what will be remembered."
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The film opens Friday at the Embarcadero Theater in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.