It was the pubic hair heard round the world, an alleged wayward strand on Clarence Thomas’ Coke can and a flash point of his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Thanks in part to her claim regarding his remark about that hair, Anita Hill, a former colleague who said Thomas had harassed her, and her testimony took a permanent place in the national memory. But until recently, memory was largely where it stayed: Saturday Night Live mocked the proceedings, Thomas was confirmed by a vote of 52 to 48, and Hill returned to life as a college professor. So why would Academy Award–winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock return to it now in her documentary Anita, out March 21? And why would Hill let her?
“It was a question of, after 20 years, is it time to revisit?” Hill, now 57, tells TIME. “I think 20 years is just about the right amount of time.”
“As a person watching that, I was pretty confused,” Mock says of the 1991 hearings. “I think I mirrored what the general public felt.” But even though Anita revisits the events of that year–and though Mock’s support for Hill is clear–the film isn’t a mere rehashing of the allegations against Thomas (who hasn’t wavered in denying Hill’s claims and didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article). It’s also a contemporary social drama told through archival footage, a deep look at Hill’s family story and interviews with Hill as well as scholars and journalists including Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, authors of a 1994 book on the case, Strange Justice.
Per Anita, Hill’s testimony didn’t derail Thomas’ confirmation, but neither did his confirmation derail the consequences of her testimony. “The law did not change after Anita Hill,” says William Eskridge Jr. of Yale Law School, an expert on the relationship between gender and law. But Hill “raised the salience of that issue. Most Americans probably did not realize before the Hill-Thomas hearings that sexual harassment in the workplace was a violation of federal law. Moreover, even if you had told them, they wouldn’t have exactly known what that meant.”
Hill never really left public life: she wrote two books and made news in 2010 when Thomas’ wife asked her to apologize. (She didn’t.) Hill says she still hears from people who say she helped them speak up; a post-1991 increase in sexual-harassment charges to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission bears out her anecdotes. In that way, Anita, which premiered at Sundance to strong reviews, is as much about the current generation fighting sexual harassment in schools, the military and the workplace as it is about Hill as a catalyst. When those activists get their screen time, the film’s reason for being is clear. That’s why Hill watches it with a sense of triumph and why she’ll pull that Coke can out of the trash bin of memory.
“We understand not only the past and how it affects us but that it is still a very real and present problem for young women–but that they’re tackling it,” she says. “That’s very, very affirming.”
This appears in the March 24, 2014 issue of TIME.
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