March 18, 2014

Speaking Truth to Power: 'Anita' Tells a Tale of Transformation

Academy Award-winning documentarian Freida Lee Mock takes on law professor Anita Hill's testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and its two-decade-long aftermath in Anita, a thoughtful, deeply felt account of Hill's remarkable journey and transformation from private citizen to internationally respected gender equality activist.

The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings took place the weekend of October 11, 1991, and those nine hours of testimony were indelible. To watch the articulate, reserved and unshakeable Hill give a straight-forward accounting of workplace sexual harassment, only to be subjected to scurrilous attacks and dismissed as a scorned loon by a panel of smug, old, white men was nearly incomprehensible.

By the time it was over, Thomas had cleverly diverted the issue from gender to race—inexplicable because Anita Hill is also African-American—and was confirmed. Hill returned to the classroom in Oklahoma, and endured threats of violence and vilification in the press and from state Republicans who sought to have her removed from her tenured professorship.

For the DC set, it was politics as usual. Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson actually referred to "that sexual harassment crap." One would think that such egregious disregard would scare off anyone so bold as to think they had a right to a harassment-free work place. At least that's what the pundits thought but instead, and as Mock so eloquently documents, the hearings had a galvanizing effect. 1992 became "The Year of the Woman," aka "The Anita Hill Class," and the conversation about gender-based power dynamics began in earnest.

However, Hill herself seemed to disappear from public view. It only took 20 years and one very odd phone call to spark her re-emergence. It's that call—a bizarre message recorded on Hill's office answering machine, from Justice Thomas' wife, Ginni—that opens Anita.

Speaking to Documentary from her office in Los Angeles, Mock discussed the joy of having a fresh perspective on Hill's testimony and how it continues to reverberate across generations and genders.

 

Anita Hill testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, October 1991. From Freida Lee Mock's Anita.

 

 

Documentary: Why did you choose to open the film with that infamous message?

Freida Lee Mock: I didn't anticipate the telephone call, and as a filmmaker I delight in those unplanned things. When it came to putting the film together and editing, that call was so resonant of the past and the present that we all thought it was a perfect way to bring the story into the future. In one sense it indicates how raw and fresh that hearing continues to be. Here's the wife of a Supreme Court Justice making a telephone call and asking for an apology for a sworn testimony. She called on a Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m. Does that sound logical? It was a very emotional and intimate issue for many people, and certainly for Mrs. Thomas.

D: What made you choose Anita Hill at this time?

FLM: I didn't quite choose the film. I wasn't even thinking about Anita Hill until the opportunity came up. I didn't really think about her in the years following the hearings, although I had been riveted when they were on and I viscerally remember her.

A friend of hers called me and asked if I would send a copy of my Tony Kushner film, Wrestling with Angels. She didn't tell me who it was for. I agreed and asked why, and she said that her friend was often asked to participate in a film about her own life and she wanted her to see a good film. She said that she wanted her friend to say "yes" to the right filmmaker. Then, when I asked for the address and saw the name I voiced to myself, "Anita Hill!" I'm absolutely sure I said this to myself: "If she's going to say yes to a filmmaker, why not me?" So I sent her Wrestling with Angels and the Maya Lin film [Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision] with a note saying, "Thank you for all you've done." And then I asked, "If you're going to say ‘yes' to a filmmaker, would you consider me?"

Shortly afterward she called me and we started an email correspondence and had some conversations on the phone about what this film might be. And I, of course, as I usually do to get the big picture when I start a film, began reading to understand what had happened.

D: How did you approach the breadth of the narrative?

FLM: I knew the story would be about the life and times. I didn't have a lot of planning before the decision was made that she would cooperate and that I'd be the filmmaker. I realized that the 20th anniversary was coming up in 2011 and to look at the story in that time frame, in a perspective away from the heat of the period, is to understand both the story of Anita Hill and what happened after the hearings. The other part is what the political framework was in terms of sexual harassment and what was going on behind the scenes with the issues of race and sex. That background became really apparent, but at the time, those of us turning on the television set didn't know.

We started filming in 2010, on Martin Luther King Day, and then it premiered at Sundance three years later-exactly to that day. It was nice to have it finished in time for that moment. It was an opportunity to tell a story in a trajectory of then, now and the future. It was a logical structure.

D: What was the process like when you were deciding what to use from the hearings?

FLM: I watched most of everything from that Columbus Day weekend. She is who she is because of the hearings. As she says in the film, it changed the trajectory of her life. I needed to collapse it and capture the essence and not make it archival and strung together. I tried to be true to the spirit of the moment and select things that were representative of the whole.

The challenge was to go beyond the salacious language, but of course we had to deal with that too. It was a serious matter and it did have a ripple effect in that it finally allowed the dialogue about sexual harassment that had been buried up until 1991, to begin. It also inspired a lot of activism.

D: I had missed how many congresswomen had spoken up in 1991. Was that a discovery to you as well?

FLM: Yes, and we came across a lot of stuff. A lot of the women who spoke up then are still in Washington. That footage in particular says how much more they understood than the guys who were on the committee. They stood as a group and they made it a point to attend the hearing. They were congresswomen who were there to watch those senators.

D: Had you had any idea of the amount of public support that she had before you shot the scene in the basement?

FLM: It was eye-opening when we went down into the basement, where she has the file cabinets full of endless letters of support. They're written to her from ordinary citizens from all over the world. Before the hearings she was very happy and fulfilled being a professor of law. She loved commercial law and contracts. It's a pretty intellectually challenging area. She wasn't an activist or a public speaker about any issues.

To me, this is a story of transformation. She became a public spokesperson for gender equality, and that happened primarily because of those letters. They spoke to her and were sustaining during those very difficult times after the hearings when she was being vilified. She would read the letters and find great inspiration and solace. She felt that the writers were looking to her to speak for them, and she rose to the occasion and became a public person because of the support of ordinary people.

 

Anita Hill, 20 years later. From Freida Lee Mock's Anita

 

D: The score is particularly apt. How did you find Lili Haydn?

FLM: Toward the end, everything was so rushed to meet the Sundance deadline. It was the first time I ever used the gender card but something about the story was so intimate that I thought perhaps I needed a composer who was a woman. I asked around and Lili was among those recommended. Brian [Johnson, the editor] and I listened to her music online and we thought, "This is wonderful." We worked together quickly. I don't think she slept for a month!

 

Left to right: Filmmaker Freida Lee Mock, Anita Hill, composer Lili Haydn, at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: © 2013 Chad Hurst. Courtesy of gettyimages.com

 

D: When all is said and done, do you see Hill as the winner in this, despite Thomas' sitting on Supreme Court?

FLM: As a filmmaker I didn't set out to ask the public to decide who's telling the truth. Hopefully what you hear is her story and who she is and her truth. As for judging him, I find it's important for me not to get into that.

Anita opens in theaters March 21 through Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Documentary, Movie City News, Dice.com, Health Callings and more. Her stories have covered the gamut from movies, music and culture to IT and healthcare.

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