Admiring tone in ‘Anita’ weakens film’s review of gender, history

In October 1991 the Oklahoma law-school professor Anita Hill went before a Senate hearing (and TV cameras) to give testimony in the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oh, you remember this? The drama of the moment is difficult to forget. Hill was alleging that while working as an assistant to Thomas years earlier, he had offered unwanted dating inquiries, made inappropriate remarks about anatomy, and talked about pornography.

The spectacle was a watershed moment in the public understanding of sexual harassment, and a true battle in the gender wars. From Thomas’s perspective, it was a “high-tech lynching,” to use the memorable phrase he unleashed when called to testify after Hill’s session.

He was then confirmed, by a slim majority, for the Supreme Court. He has been there since, voting with the conservative side and remaining remarkably silent during the court’s public sessions.

“Anita: Speaking Truth to Power” is a new documentary that summarizes the story. Well, one side of the story: as the first-name-basis chumminess of the title suggests, this movie is entirely in line with Hill’s version of events.

Director Freida Mock, who won an Oscar for the stirring “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” is not exercising journalism here. This is an admiring portrait, the first two-thirds of which is made up of the Thomas scandal, the final third of which is Hill’s life since 1991 and a series of restatements about how the culture has changed because of the hearings.

Not surprisingly, it’s the early part of the film that is the most engrossing. Hill’s testimony was riveting and grueling television, and it remains fascinating today.

We are reminded of the senators who grilled Hill about the details of her sexually oriented testimony. No matter which side of the debate you were on, one thing united all Americans: the revelation that most U.S. senators appeared to be incompetent fools.

The historical value of this footage is real. But “Anita” brings little that’s new to the conversation, and seems to exist primarily as a kind of rallying cry for awareness of women’s issues in general.

That’s a worthy goal. But we have the right to expect more from documentaries than an attitude that remains unabashedly worshipful throughout.

“Anita: Speaking Truth to Power” (two stars)

Documentary portrait of Anita Hill, with the emphasis on her 1991 testimony before the Senate hearing on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. That’s an interesting piece of history, but the movie is so unabashedly admiring of Hill that it feels less like journalism than a puff piece.

Rating: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter

Opening: Friday at the Sundance Cinemas Seattle.

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