It was a slightly out-of-body experience, watching the recent television series “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” Part déjà vu, part lurid fascination and horror, it reminded me of watching “Anita,” the 2013 documentary on the law professor Anita Hill’s life during and after her testimony against the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in his confirmation hearings. I was a child when Simpson was found not guilty, in 1995, but I remember people I knew celebrating, people who believed that a black man’s triumph against a corrupt and racist justice system was overdue. Even though many of these same people acknowledged that Simpson probably did it, his release was seen as a necessary sacrifice. As an adult, watching “The People v. O. J. Simpson” was enraging. The judgment seemed like a betrayal of women’s bodies and women’s voices. Watching “Anita” was even more maddening: the proceedings were a betrayal not just of women but of a particular kind of black woman who had to navigate the landmines of both gender and race.
Near the end of “Anita,” there is footage of Hill speaking at an event at Hunter College, in 2011. After the speech, a young woman sobs uncontrollably as she asks Hill how she got through her experience. Her emotion is understandable: years later, the mistreatment of Hill is still shocking. In “Confirmation,” a recent HBO film about the Thomas hearings, that treatment was again in plain view on our television sets, making us question how much has changed. Kerry Washington, who played Hill and who was an executive producer on the film, was strikingly understated in the role. In what was a leap from her at-times histrionic character on the TV show “Scandal,” Washington nailed Hill’s reserved, soft-spoken way of speaking and her unobtrusive demeanor. If anything, the performance was too muted. As a viewer, I wanted to see Hill fight more, but what should have really happened, in real life, is that the country and the institutions of power should have fought against her less.