Concepts of good and evil, patriotic notions of “us and them,” partisan politics, and sports have historically reinforced the perception that our society is bifurcated. These binary interpretations of the world seep into our consciousness and affect the way we identify people. Splitting objects into two groups makes it easier to compartmentalise, but scholars such as Gloria J. Gibson and B. Ruby Rich have advocated for the recognition of each person’s multiple identities and the importance of systems of naming where people can name themselves, respectively. In the 2013 documentary film, Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, filmmaker Frieda Lee Mock intersects the multiple identities of Anita Hill and creates a cinematic portrait of a courageous woman who stood up to the abuse of power in 1991 and weathered a storm of defamatory names, capturing Anita’s journey to a place where she could finally name herself and empower others to do the same.
According to B. Ruby Rich in her essay, “The Crisis of Naming in Feminist Film Criticism,” “to name is to take possession” (47). Beginning the documentary with a vindictive phone message from Virginia Thomas—Clarence Thomas’ wife—to Anita Hill in 2010, Mock uses the first half of her film to show the process of strangers attempting to name Anita Hill; from Virginia Thomas, Thomas himself, the Senate Judiciary committee, the media, and the public. By showing the process of defamation Anita Hill was forced to endure by speaking up against sexual harassment, Mock exemplifies Rich’s concept of the “possession” people were trying to take of Hill through naming. The second half of the film Mock spotlights Hill’s own story through personal testimony and reflections from those closest to her and consequently, captures the process by which Hill names herself. By taking this approach Mock answers Rich’s call for feminist filmmakers to “possess” their “own culture by name” (47).
Hill naming herself is the crux of the film and the reason why the intersection of multiple identities is so important. As Gloria J. Gibson states in her essay, “Identities Unmasked/Empowerment Unleashed: The Documentary Style of Michelle Parkerson,” “the everyday experiences of African American women encompass more than gender. Race and class are intimately intertwined in their identities” (2). In the same essay, Gibson calls this an example of the “intersection of multiple identities” (11). Had Mock allowed the drama of the trial and talking head, media analysts and scholars to dictate Hill’s identity the film would not have validated its title. Instead, Mock leaves the wake of the trial and the public scrutiny Hill endures for scenes of quiet contemplation and recollection of memories, as she visits her family home. Here we reach a metaphorical (and in the concurrent scene of the film, a literal) intersection of Anita Hill’s multiple identities as the youngest of thirteen siblings, granddaughter of black southern farmers, product of a newly-integrated education system, athlete, scholar, lawyer, educator, and patriot.
A turning point for Anita Hill, as recalled by her, is captured by Mock in the film at a Spellman College seminar in Atlanta, Georgia where Hill speaks frankly about how viciously she had been attacked before the public. She recalls being summed up by her gender and separate from her race in regards to her being a woman and Thomas being a Black man. Before an audience of women, Hill rejects such bifurcated subjectivity by linking both her race and gender as being vital to her identity and ergo, the trial. She concludes her point with a story of a “meltdown” she had with her mother during the hearings. In one of the film’s most tender moments, Hill recalls her mother’s comforting words, “you know who you are and you know what you can do and don’t ever doubt yourself,” as Mock replays the scene of Anita Hill’s mother arriving to the hearings dressed in white satin and embracing her daughter—a symbol of matriarchal strength that embodies the spirit of the film. Soon after this emotional scene, Hill credits her mother’s inspirational words with motivating her to write her book, Speaking Truth to Power, in order to tell her story and take back ownership of her name and identity.
Frieda Lee Mock uses Anita Hill’s story to embolden and empower audiences to recognize the significance of the multiplicity of identities by allowing Hill to speak her truth and tell her story. By naming these identities, she takes possession out of the hands of the media and those who tried to damage her credibility. Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, celebrates the intersection of Hill’s identities—embodied in a courageous, black woman—and ends with images of inspirational speeches and lectures given by Hill to crowds of conscientious women. Mock captures Hill’s journey in accepting her truth and the mantle of leadership that came with it in order to inspire other women to speak their own “truths into power.”
Written by Jonathan Ayon Alonso.
Gibson, Gloria J. “Identities Unmasked/Empowerment Unleashed: The Documentary Style of Michelle Parkerson.” Feminism and Documentary (1999): 1-11. PDF Copy.
Rich, B. Ruby. “The Crisis of Naming Feminist Film Criticism.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader (1999): 41-47. PDF Copy.