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Speaking Truth to the Choir

The Anita Hill doc doesn’t bother making a case.

Have you ever felt that you needed to see Anita Hill's family doing the Electric Slide? It's clear from the subtitle that Freida Mock's documentary Anita: Speaking Truth to Power will be a rah-rah job, which is fine. What isn't clear, and what isn't fine at all, is why the final work needs to be so shapeless in its hagiography, so triumphal in its vagueness, so hapless in arguing its case.

Mock, like most reasonable people, is convinced that Hill told the truth when, in October 1991, she got hauled before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about her experience as the target of sexual harassment from then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Mock is convinced that anybody watching is convinced, too, and that what we they really need — rather than to have the case thoroughly settled — is to see is a slogging final half of Hill being applauded by audiences and speaking in generalities from lecterns.

In interview segments, the Hill of today proves fascinating and incisive, but the excerpts from her speeches and Q&As seem too diced up to communicate effectively. Mock cuts from footage of Hill to photos of Hill speaking at other times, presumably to cover the edits; several times in the film, the dramatic interest comes from trying to work out why we're being shown whatever image she's put on the screen. The sequences haphazardly covering Hill's family life prove a relief, as they're full of the moving specifics of extraordinary American lives, although it's never clear what structural logic urges Mock from topic to topic. Hill goes through her days being impressive and a little majestic as the movie puds about in circles.

The first half is better, of course. It's hard to hash the high drama and absurdity of the Thomas hearings, in which jowly, clueless senators grilled Hill for nine hours on the nastiest details of her story while entirely missing the point regarding her allegations of a pattern of repeated, power-abusing behavior. Her questioners look like blobs of pale and quivering cookie dough. In the extensive clips from that ridiculous session, Hill remains crisp and unflappable, no matter how many times she's pressed to offer clarifications like, "He measured his penis in terms of length."

Those senators look worse than ever, both the Republicans — who can't comprehend why a black woman in the early '80s would not have filed a formal sexual-harassment complaint against her powerful boss — and the Democrats, who bobble the hearing in ways almost identical to how Mock bobbles the evidence: Committee chairman Joe Biden neglected to call Angela Wright to testify, an oversight the movie justifiably presents as damning. But Mock doesn't even bother to tell viewers who Wright was or that her testimony would have offered a fresh set of similar accusations — or that her appearance as a witness was scuttled in behind-the-scenes agreements between senators of both parties.

Fortunately, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker and Jill Abramson of The New York Times turn up to offer occasional context. Another reason the Democrats seemed declawed? Their vaunted lion had problems of his own: "Ted Kennedy's life was so compromised, he couldn't speak up," Mayer observes. Other clarifying highlights include Wyoming senator Alan Simpson's ignoble dismissal, during the hearing, of sexual harassment as "crap," and the then-and-now remembrances of law school acquaintances of Hill's, all of whom spoke to her about the harassment as it occurred. That's the film's strongest segment, one of the few times it rouses itself into anything like reporting. That's not to discount the power of the vintage C-SPAN clips Mock has assembled: Revel in the outrage of Democratic reps Pat Schroeder and Barbara Mikulski when the initial Thomas hearings were closed before Hill's allegations were even considered. Mikulski barks the message D.C. was sending to young women: "Nobody's going to take you seriously, not even in the United States Senate."

The doc's second half sets out to prove that that isn't true, no matter how the hearings turned out, but the film, so charged during the hearings, slumps into cheery scrapbook mode. Some of this is affecting, especially scenes of Hill discussing her hate and fan mail, still filed away in cabinets in her basement, or speaking tenderly about the strength of her mother.

The film's thesis — that Hill's bravery in speaking out has inspired awareness across America of the perniciousness of sexual harassment — is illustrated powerfully in a late sequence of teenage girls discussing what harassment they have faced as well as strategies for handling it. But too much of the movie feels like notes toward a portrait rather than the portrait itself, and Mock's failure to nail down the Thomas case drains the power from the victory-lap scenes of Hill addressing adoring crowds: All these beaming people in those audiences have been convinced. Why wouldn't Mock endeavor to convince her audience, too?

 
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