Over 20 years have passed since American attorney and law professor Anita Hill made headlines and became a national figure for speaking out against authority. Declaring in front of Capitol Hill’s most powerful men that she had been sexually harassed by then Supreme Court nominee and George H.W. Bush confidant Clarence Thomas (whom she had worked for years earlier), Hill went through grueling hours of public interrogation and ridicule describing the offensive comments and advancements Thomas allegedly made toward her. If political theater attracts ratings, than C-Span’s nonstop coverage was one of the most studied events of the year, as the likes of Joe Biden and others appeared equally welcoming and antagonistic toward Hill, shining a national spotlight on the issue of sexual misconduct in the workplace.
Anita opens Friday, March 21 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with Anita Hill in person for a Q&A at the 4:30pm & 6:45pm screenings.
Anita, the latest documentary from Academy Award-winner Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision), contextualizes the event by showing the controversial 1991 hearings (and the media storm it subsequently created) while simultaneously catching up with Hill in the present day, reflecting on how her life has subsequently been affected; an advocate for gender and racial equality, Hill currently travels around the country speaking with the younger generation about her experience. FilmLinc Daily recently spoke with Mock about the new documentary, reflecting on how Hill’s story has inspired discussion and change throughout the country.
“In 2009, close to 2010, the opportunity came up to do a film about Anita Hill,” Mock noted on the origins of the project. “I had, at that time, no real connection to her. I had really just remembered her viscerally in 1991 on the television set and the hearings. Beyond that, I didn’t know what happened to Anita since that time, since she’s not a celebrity. She’s a professor.”
According to Mock, the need for this film was both necessary and timely. “The idea came up through a mutual friend. I got interested in [creating] a film because I realized that Anita had such a profound impact on changing the course of history for women and men in the workplace and for those young men and women coming up into the workplace. And yet I realized I didn’t know who she really was or what happened to her since the [Congressional] hearings. The twentieth anniversary coming up in 2011 made me think that this is a time to really have a perspective… a distance that allows a perspective on both her story and who she is and what happened to her and also an opportunity to look at the issue of sexual harassment and the legacy of what she did in that area.”
As is often the case with documentaries that feature living subjects at their core, a great amount of care and respect must go into crafting the narrative. “I didn’t have to have her approval,” Mock quickly said, “that was never a condition in making the film. But I needed her cooperation. She said ‘yes’ to cooperating, by allowing me to film her now and all the activities she was involved with both as a professor and a speaker… [as well as] both her private life and certainly a lot of her public life. But yes, I think it was critical in doing a film that it had some real personal in it, a personal story other than just what you read about or see in the headlines.”
As the documentary makes clear, other women had accused Clarence Thomas of inappropriate behavior before their voices were ultimately stifled. “There were three women who are actually subpoenaed," Mock recalled, "and they sat there for three days. They sat there Friday when the hearings opened, waiting to be called. If you get subpoenaed, you figure you have to appear, so they stayed there. And ultimately Chairperson Biden did not call them… [In the book Strange Justice, which recalls the period], they describe these other women who would have corroborated what Anita said. That, in fact, Clarence Thomas had a pattern of treating women with certain inappropriate advances, verbal and otherwise.”
For younger viewers who may be unfamiliar with the hearings, Mock’s film provides a substantial amount of archival footage crucial in understanding Hill’s uphill battle. The talk of the town, various news outlets, talk shows, and even SNL covered the ongoing, “he said, she said” back-and-forth. “Initially, in developing the story,” Mock remembers, “I really looked at the literature out there. I hadn't started thinking about the visuals yet… In terms of her story, you know the hearings will be a critical part of the story, and you know they exist because of those archived by C-Span…It’s a business for the networks to sell their stock footage. So you just know it’s out there and you know it was covered wall-to-wall. It’s just a matter of coming to it and deciding what stock footage is powerful for the story. The story comes first and then you start filming live-action today and then you start working closely with stock footage materials. I really didn’t start working heavily with it until we started putting the film together in post-production."
In multiple ways, Anita could be seen sharing many similarities and parallels to Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Mock’s 1995 Oscar-winning documentary on the famous Chinese-American architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Both were criticized by Caucasian men in power for who they were (many were against the idea of an Asian woman designing a memorial for the Americans who died in Vietnam) and both fought back against the the establishment. “In both stories both individuals happened to be attacked and criticized by the establishment, by essentially white males," said Mock. "But the issues for each character or the protagonist—in the case of Maya, the artist-designer, and in the case of Anita, the law professor and before that, an expert on Civil Rights Law while working under Clarence Thomas—is that for those two, race was not an issue. Maya was creating a design. Race became an issue when they wanted to attack her and discredit her design, so they attacked her race as part of that [campaign]."
Clarence Thomas famously turned the tables at the hearings, saying before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believed he was being accused of sexual harassment because of the color of his skin. In a media spectacle, he described his hearing as a “High-tech lynching."
“[Anita] came in there not to say, ‘I am a black person,’ but to say, ‘I am a person who was treated this way by my boss," said Mock. "'Coincidentally my boss is black and I am black,’ but she did not make that the issue in the foreground. [But Thomas] made that the foreground issue when he was under threat of not being confirmed by the committee. He didn’t play the race card in the weeks before when we was being vetted or being interviewed. Only when that weekend occurred and she came out with her allegations and description of mistreatment, then he played the race card. She went in there as a person who happened to be a woman and who happened to also be black.”
Twenty-three years after first rising to unsolicited fame, Hill now teaches classes on Race and the Law and Social Justice and the Obama Administration at Brandeis University. The film shows Hill's work in academia, which played a critical part in evolving the public's perception of her. One immediate fallout from the hearings and subsequent backlash took place in her native Oklahoma soon after returning from Washington. Politically motivated detractors tried to get both Hill and her Dean fired at the school where they worked. But even during that difficult time and later moving to Brandeis in Boston, she has used her story to advance the discussion of sex and the abuse of power. Even men are becoming more vocal about claims of sexual misconduct. “It’s a matter of treating someone [with respect], whether you are white or black or a woman or a man… this kind of treatment is not appropriate.”
Concluded Mock: "And we know that men are harassed by women and [harassed by other men] too, in the workplace and certainly in the military. I think the percentage of men harassed is even greater… like 55 percent? That is, being harassed sexually by other men. So, yes, race and sex come into play. It’s interesting.”