The following interview was conducted at Sundance last year.
Women and Hollywood: Talk about what drew you to this story.
Freida Mock: What drew me to this story was that I felt, not unlike the American public, that we didn’t really have a handle on what was going on and what this whole process that was the hearings was about. We didn’t understand who she was and I felt she was misunderstood if not maligned. There was so much misunderstanding, if not misinformation. And that was because of the politics of that whole hearing, much of which the American public, I felt, did not understand, me included. All I know is that it was sensational testimony and that all of us were watching and that we took away from it something that has stayed with us for twenty years.
When I told friends that I was going to make a film about Anita Hill, immediately they had a reaction. They just remember where they were, but they also express a certain sympathy. This one friend in particular, who’s an attorney and went to Yale Law school, commented, “A year doesn’t go by where I wonder how she is.” So I felt it was just such an opportunity to tell the story of who she is, where she came from, how she ended up in the seat of power, and what her impact has been.
WaH: She’s a really unknown heroine from our history.
FM: Exactly. People know her as a heroic person, though she doesn’t say she was heroic for just doing her civic duty. She was a private citizen and I think that all was lost in the politics and the maligning of who she was. She was a reluctant witness. The film to me was an opportunity to retell a story — a very American story.
WaH: You seem drawn to biographical pieces in your work. [Mock’s previous films include Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner and the Oscar-winning Maya Lin: A Strong Vision.]
FM: They might seem biographical, but actually I don’t do biographies. If anything, I’m drawn to stories that have strong social, political, and historical elements to them, but I attach it to a character. I tend to be drawn to one character who best exemplifies that issue, that experience. What better way to talk about sexual harassment than to do it through the life of Anita Hill?
WaH: What’s the biggest misconception that people have about Anita Hill?
FM: One, I think there’s a mystery about her — and she’s not mysterious. If you were to actually read about her, there’s public information on her out there. And I partly think that was a result of that hearing. She came into our living rooms in that blue dress and had a profound impact on people.
WaH: The hearings didn’t take her down.
FM: That goes to the issue that people always wonder about. How did she bear under that nine hours of scrutiny before 14 powerful white men? And that goes back to a family story. You know what I loved was that the family has had a journey. She talks about home — a home that is secure, where you can develop and flower as a human being, where your sense of dignity is nurtured. And for her family, that meant actually moving because her grandparents had to avoid the threats of racism. Even growing up in Oklahoma, despite living under Jim Crow, it says a lot about her family, her mother, her father and the lessons on how to take the best out of the circumstances, how not to complain, and how to conduct themselves.
WaH: What surprised you most about her?
FM: Her life is very organic. She takes the strongest aspects and doesn’t look back and doesn’t complain. And that goes back to her parents, her mother in particular. It’s a phrase she says about her parents, that they didn’t try to fight the system — they tried to get the best out of the system.
So here she’d found herself after the hearings, thinking her life would just be going back to being a law professor of contracts and commercial law. But she transformed herself because of the opportunities and took what was in front of her. She was asked to be a spokesperson for gender equality and she knew that she could make a difference. I was really impressed by how moved she was by the American people — the voices she heard from the letters she received. What sustained her in the whole post-hearing period was that she heard from the American public. Hopefully, that’s going to be her next project, making a book of all those letters.
WaH: How many hours did you interview her for?
FM: I don’t do long interviews. I find that a film can only be so long, and for me there’s so much story and information and ideas and you could do a miniseries. But it’s a film, a movie I do want people to come to and be transported by. It’s almost like haiku: you go to the essence of the story, therefore the interviews are shaped by the film itself. I did three interviews with her about 2 hours each. I find that there’s sort of a narrative arc within that.
WaH: Why do you think women are so much more successful in documentaries?
FM: I think that the financial stakes aren’t as high. And I think the higher the budget, the more you may lend yourself to safe decisions. In particular with digital media, you can get into it, pick up the cameras and do what you need to do.
WaH: What do you want people to walk out of the film thinking about?
FM: I’d like them to understand who she is now because she is a public figure. She’s made a huge difference on certain major issues on sexual harassment and equality issues. And to understand who she is and where she came from — not what she was characterized as in those hearings.
When you think about it, when she addressed the issue of equality, not only for race but for gender, sexual orientation. But also if we look at the African-American story: how much it is symbolic of her personal family story, and how in one generation her grandfather went from being from property to being a property owner.
WaH: A lot of young women growing up have no relation to that Anita Hill moment. What can we teach young women or how can we help bridge that generation gap within this issue?
FM: I think that young people are actually, at least from what I’ve encountered through this film and through the focus of her legacy, is amazing. I was stunned to see that they are addressing the issue of harassment beyond the workplace, like the group Hollaback. They are very strategic using social media. They will take iPhone pictures of a guy being gross and inappropriate. They are using the internet to deliver the focus on that issue.
WaH: That is her legacy?
FM: She inspired the next generation of activists, young women and men who wanted to make a difference on the issue of harassment. And you have this organization called Girls for Gender Equity — they feel that if you invest in younger kids, then you can prevent sexual harassment. That’s what feels encouraging. She’s giving voice and a model to say that you can make a difference.
WaH: Last question, politically you look at what has happened in Anita Hill’s life — the trajectory of her life and the difference that she’s made. You look at the man she testified about, and he’s such a divisive figure. Do you have any thoughts on that piece of it?
FM: I think that another part I’d like people to go away with is that it’s their Supreme Court — they can have a voice about it, if they care. They can make a difference. There was certainly a groundswell to get Anita’s testimony because [the Senate] didn’t want to hear from her. They just wanted it to go away; they didn’t want to handle it.
It was the voices of the American people, mainly women at that time, who said, “You have to open those hearings. You have to have her there.” I’d love for them to take away the point that one vote can make a difference or that it could have gone this way or that way depending upon who is on the Court.
Watch the Anita trailer and Hill’s thoughtful interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where she discusses the enormous impact and the emotional costs of her historic 1991 testimony against Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas in front of the U.S. Senate: