Frisky Q&A: Academy Award-Winning “ANITA” Director Freida Lee Mock
Before she transcribed this interview, our intern told me that she wasn’t entirely sure who Anita Hill was. I could hardly blame her. Even with a segment on the Anita Hill testimony during a gender studies class in college, I didn’t know too much about Anita Hill myself.
The new documentary,”ANITA,” revisits Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 after she revealed that her former employer, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her. A quiet law professor in Oklahoma, Hill had privately revealed the sexual harassment she suffered under Thomas, which was then leaked to the press. Immediately thrust in the public eye, she was asked to publicly testify against Thomas and decided to go for it. Sexual harassment laws were on the books, but this was the first time in many people’s memory that a woman subordinate to a very powerful man had spoken out. Not at all surprisingly, Hill was repeatedly asked to repeat graphic testimony about Thomas’ behavior; she was accused of being a liar or a “scorned woman”; and worst of all, treated as if it were her character that was under consideration. That both Hill and now Supreme Court Justice are both Black only added another layer of pressure to her decision to speak up. Thomas famously accused the 14 all-white men seated on the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating Hill’s allegations of conducting a “high tech lynching.” (He later blamed “pro-choice liberals” for going after him.) Eventually, Thomas was narrowly confirmed by the Senate.
Today, Hill is a professor of law at Brandeis University and lectures around the world about gender equality. In the new film “ANITA,” she opens up about the 1991 hearing and the affect that her testimony had on her life and career — both the harassment she has suffered because of it and how she now sees how it paved the way for more women speaking up about sexual harassment. Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Freida Lee Mock (“Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” 1995) is the mastermind behind the film, taking us from the present day back to 1991 (and a much younger-looking Joe Biden) to revisit the very recent time in our nation’s history that should bring us great shame. Mock spoke over the phone with me about her new film, which premiered last year at Sundance, below:)
The Frisky: I really loved the documentary! I was so excited to watch it because I didn’t know the complete story about Anita Hill. All of that happened when I was only six- or seven-years-old.
Freida Lee Mock: Do you remember any sort of glimmer of something, maybe your parents going crazy like I was going crazy?
I vaguely remember was that it was being positioned as a woman against a man and who were we supposed to believe? That might have been the first inkling that I had, as a seven-year-old, of how men and women could be pitted against each other as a “he said/she said” thing. But the horrible details of it — the first time I ever delved deep into the details of what Hill went through — was by watching your film.
Oh, okay. And you’re my target audience, anyway. I said people who are 35 or over vaguely had heard about or saw it. Particularly the younger [viewers], I felt you shouldn’t have to know anything about the two or anything to think, are the characters in the story interesting enough to keep you going?
How did you come upon Anita Hill as a subject to do the documentary about?
I had no idea what had happened to her and I didn’t know who she was, really. So [before I started filming] I felt that the 20th anniversary [of Hill’s testimony] is coming up, that the 20-year timeframe allowed me an opportunity to tell a story about both a person who had such a profound impact on the working lives of women and men in the future generations — you know, your generation coming up — because of what she did in a nine-hour testimony. It changed the course of history. But I knew nothing about her, where she’d come from, or what happened to her and that maybe the facts were stated 20 years ago but it was such a sensational hearing. Most people were just sort of riveted by this scene. As you said, [it was presented as] this sort of fight between a man and a woman. That was the way the press presented it to us, you know? The reason to do a film for me was to try to understand who this person is, what happened to her, and also to look at the larger issue of sexual harassment and what happened since the dialogue was started 20 years ago, and where are we today on that issue in terms of many challenges we see in colleges and in the military and other places.
You had an enormous amount of access with “ANITA.” A significant portion of the film relies on old news footage of the Hill’s testimony, but there’s some really integral source material from Anita Hill herself, as well as from reporters that covered the hearing, her friends and her former colleagues.
I think that there’s a really important basis of trust between the filmmaker and the character or subject. Most of the films I’ve done that deal with real people I would never do it unless they felt comfortable. It’s just a priority, because you’re going to spend time, and they know it. Most of the people I’ve done films on, they’re not celebrities or public figures who want to have a camera around them and follow them. But then once they agree [to be the subject of a documentary], they understand that that’s what you need. At the same time, the filmmaker and the crew tries to be as unobtrusive as you can be — but you’re there, you know. Ideally they sort of forget about you.
Why did you choose to open “ANITA” with that 2010 voicemail from Ginni Thomas, where she left a message for Anita Hill at her Brandeis office insisting Hill should apologize to her husband Clarence?
Several reasons. I thought it was such an astonishing call, and also the fact that it indicates how resonant, how relevant that issue of 20 years ago [still] was. Actually, it turns out Anita received so many messages and emails when the news got out that Mrs. Thomas had called her. That indicated to Anita how wrong and how active the issues from that time are today. For the filmmaking, for the story, I think it established that it is not an old story … [t]hat there’s something going on today that resonates today and in the past, so it allowed the story to be framed within today and the past.
Ginni Thomas also serves as some food for thought for the women that stand by their men when their men are accused of doing bad things. Ginni Thomas certainly is not the only woman that has ever assumed other women have been lying about what her husband or boyfriend actually did.
Exactly. We see it constantly — [Hillary] Clinton, [Silda] Spitzer, they all do the right thing politically.
One thing that stuck out to me in “ANITA” was a TV news clip, I guess it was from 1991, and the newscaster is talking about Anita Hill and the allegations and how they opened up a “debate “about sexual harassment on the job. That word “debate” stuck out in my mind. As far as feminist advances still need to go in our society, I’m not sure too many people would say the existence of sexual harassment is up for “debate” today.
That was a state of mind [back then]. It was ’91, there was no absolute standard about what’s accepted and not accepted [at work]. Half of the game changer was sort of workplace sexual harassment training, and you were told what was right, what was wrong, what was criminal. And so it was a debate. It says something about the state of mind back then, because it wasn’t clear to people. You know, [before Anita Hill] people the public were sort of fumbling around, [saying] “I don’t know what sexual harassment is.” But actually, I think the women who felt that kind of behavior did, in fact, [know] it’s not a debate, [but] I guess they didn’t know what to do about it. The laws were on the books, but we were unclear on what the federal course of action would be. Oftentimes I hear that it would [have been] career suicide to do anything. There wasn’t public support for that act. Today, there is public precedent for you to prevail [in a sexual harassment lawsuit] if you show a pattern of behavior.
During her testimony, Anita Hill talked about how she couldn’t prove that there was sexual harassment. She had to explain to the Senate Judiciary Committee that all she could do was tell them what her own lived experience was. Were you concerned that you would feel under similar pressure presenting her story in the documentary? That people were going to watch it assuming that you’re trying to prove or disprove what happened?
[That’s a g]reat question in that I set out not to prove or disprove anything. … [Hill] knew the hearings were not a court of law for you to prove or disprove sexual harassment. So, she being an attorney, when she said that statement, [it] had a lot more specific meaning. She knew that legally, [her testimony] was not the forum. You’d have to file a lawsuit and it would be in that setting that you would prove sexual harassment. … [L]ater on in the [testimony] she does say, when she’s being pushed by a senator [who asked] “Why didn’t you do anything?” or you know, “Why didn’t you file a lawsuit?” She tells us that for women, before 1991, you’d just try to get out of the situation. You just found another job, even though there were laws on the books before that; the judges were not receptive. There was not clarity, I think, in the popular culture to really back those kinds of lawsuits. People didn’t understand [how sexual harassment functions] and it took the 1991 hearings that were so notorious, that huge national forum to begin, for people to look at this.
We live in an increasingly more mediated society today than we did back then. How do you think it would be different for Anita Hill if this had happened today, in 2014? She had a couple news outlets with cameras chasing her around back then, but today it would probably be three times as many cameras camped outside her house every morning.
Yeah, so many more! It would be a more huge public response, both ways, by the public blogging and weighing on the issue. … [Now] they would publicly vet a politician on every area, because [then] they didn’t delve into the very personal because that was considered [wrong]…. [Clarence Thomas] had several federal appointments [before his Supreme Court nomination] and that issue never came out in terms of their doing their due diligence, you know?
Do you feel hopeful as a feminist that this generation is a lot more empowered to speak up about sexual harassment?
I feel hopeful as an American, and a filmmaker … I think that happened in the last decade … You ask your mom: 20 years ago, we weren’t talking about empowering gender equality. We didn’t hear that. We didn’t hear Eve Ensler and V-Day and all that, and the idea of ending violence against girls and women globally. That’s of the recent past … [W]omen and men get it and think This is not cool to treat people that way. And I love [what Anita Hill] says about all these thousands of letters she gets yearly — that it’s switched that a lot more letters are from men. [Men] get it, they don’t want to see their daughters subjected to what they’ve seen in the workplace. You should task your mother and grandmother or aunts, it’s gross what was going on before 1991!
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I don’t use that phrase. I applaud all those ideas. I don’t give myself a tag like that, but then I absolutely believe in supporting dignity for all, to really treat people with dignity and justice, you know. And men and women and boys and girls. I’ll call it a humanist, if you want to call me something. I’m sensitive to those issues, you know.
Despite the heavy subject matter, the film ended on such a hopeful note. Was that intentional for you? Why is it that you feel so hopeful?
A filmmaker, especially in a documentary film, they don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen … [I]n this case, I knew it was going to be the story about her life and times, and that what was being filmed during that almost 19th and 20th year was evolving. … I was happy to see that that’s where the future [generation of women are] … it’s sort of an indication that there’s a lot more awareness by the next generation, a lot more media savvy to use digital ways to instantly get information out, and that also is what Anita’s about. She’s not about going backwards. She’s really about building on the past to build a better future. So it’s hopeful because she’s hopeful and it’s really true in terms of what’s happening for me as a filmmaker, seeing what happens in this country.
This interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity.
[Images via IDP/Samuel Goldwyn Films and Getty]