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In 1991, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas as an associate Supreme Court justice.
Her allegations of sexual harassment and the intense questioning by the senators ignited a firestorm of controversy around the country between those who believed Hill and those who thought she was lying.
Though Clarence Thomas was eventually confirmed and currently sits on the Supreme Court, Anita Hill’s life was forever changed.
Now, the new film “Anita” revisits those hearings, the passions it provoked, and the long lasting impact of Anita Hill’s testimony.
Hill herself also speaks about the effect of her testimony on her own life at the time, and in the years that followed.
“Anita” director Freida Mock joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the film.
On how things have changed since 1991
“Then, we realized one didn’t talk about it and dealt with it by avoiding it and not making a so-called fuss. I think the hearings sound almost strange that people talked that way to a person or would ask such intrusive questions. It’s only 20 years ago but compared to what we are today, I don’t believe that people would dare publicly treat someone that way. What happened in that sensational hearing, televised nationally, really became a transformative act in terms of looking at what has happened to the rights of both women and men in the workplace, to the extent that there has been reform on sexual harassment behavior.”
On the many people who did not believe Hill’s testimony
“At that time in’91 I think they took a poll, they said seven out of 10 did not believe her, and that included women. But within a year, they said that the polls changed and once the people began to think about, understand the context in which she was speaking, there was a dramatic shift and the numbers dramatically changed in her favor. I think people were just stunned to hear someone speak so openly and candidly and graphically about what had happened.”
On the legacy of the hearings
“In workplace rights there are policies mandated that there be sexual harassment training. And the legacy too is certainly now we see this happening in trying to address the issue on college campuses. I mean we’ve know sexual assault’s been happening forever… So that legacy is very real, but I find in the film that it was really encouraging to see the next generation of young women activists who’ve been inspired by Anita… And that part I think is the real legacy of what Anita, who did not set out to be a spokesperson, I think, for gender equality, she was just at that moment speaking her truth. But she has I think been transformed by the fact that she is a public figure and she’s heard from thousands of Americans and people from around the world about this issue and she has taken on the mantle of being a spokesperson for the rights of men and women.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Back in the fall of 1991, Anita Hill was a little-known law professor at the University of Oklahoma. She soon became one of the most famous women in the country because of her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee as it was deciding whether or not advance Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Hill said that Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was assistant secretary of education for civil rights.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ANITA")
ANITA HILL: After approximately three months of working there, he asked me to go out socially with him. What happened next and telling the world about it are the two most difficult things - experiences of my life. It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience, I felt that I had to tell the truth.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, a new documentary called "Anita" looks at the controversy that surrounded and followed Anita Hill after the Thomas hearings. Joining us from the studios of NPR West is documentary director Freida Mock. Welcome.
FREIDA MOCK: Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.
CHAKRABARTI: So it's been more than 20 years since the 1991 testimony that Anita Hill gave. What did she tell you about why she decided to work with you on this film?
MOCK: When I approached her, she didn't tell me why specifically. She just said yes about doing a film. But she has said that in the course of teaching, she found in the recent, you know, five to eight, 10 years that the next generation of kids growing up are really media savvy and that's a way in which they learn about issues and history. And she felt that this medium, film and ultimately digital distribution, is a way for the story and the themes of life to be understood by the younger generation.
CHAKRABARTI: One of the most brazing things about the film I found is that it really takes you back in time to 1991 and the tone and the nature of both Anita Hill's testimony and the questioning she was put under. I mean, because I think a lot of people forget that it was grueling nine hours, right, of testimony.
MOCK: Yes. Yes.
CHAKRABARTI: And the questioning was oftentimes very intrusive from the senators, very intimate. I mean, this is when Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming questioned Anita Hill about her voracity. So let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED CONFIRMATION HEARING)
SENATOR ALAN SIMPSON: If you what say this man said to you occurred, why in God's name - when he left his position of power or status or authority over you, why in God's name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?
CHAKRABARTI: Freida Mock, was this one of the things that you found most interesting about making this film, is that so much of the way sexual - workplace sexual harassment was talked about in 1991, it was as if it couldn't possibly exist because why would a woman tolerate it?
MOCK: Yes. Then we realized one didn't talk about it and dealt with it by avoiding it and not making a so-called fuss. I think the hearings sound almost strange that people talked that way to a person, would ask such intrusive questions. It's only 20 years ago. But compared to what we are today, I don't believe people would dare publicly treat someone that way.
What happened in that sensational hearing televised nationally really became a transformative act in terms of looking at what has happened to the rights of both women and men in the workplace to the extent that there has been reform on sexual harassment behavior, that there's mandated - at least in the workplace - sexual harassment workshops, and the need for people to understand what are your rights, what is appropriate, and when inappropriate.
CHAKRABARTI: That is one of the lasting legacies of the Thomas hearings, in terms of changing the way that the nation talks about workplace sexual harassment. But still, I just can't get away from how different it was in 1991 because at one point - because so many people were questioning her testimony, she even agreed to take a polygraph.
MOCK: Absolutely. I mean she felt that she was speaking truth to power, and her responsibility was tell what she knew about how she was treated by her boss. And that was her responsibility to talk about that, to describe that kind of behavior.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, at the same time, we have to remind ourselves that in 1991 - I would guess - I'd venture to say that to many women, for example, it was a revelation, that finally sexual harassment was being talked about in such a spectacularly public forum. But on the other hand, there were equal numbers, if not more people, who absolutely thought that Anita Hill was lying, that she was part of some sort of conspiracy to thwart Thomas' nomination. A lot of people didn't believe her.
MOCK: Yes. At that time in '91, I think they took a poll. They said seven out of 10 did not believe her, and that included women. But within a year, they said that the poll's changed. And once the people began to think about and understand the context in which she was speaking, there was a dramatic shift and the numbers dramatically changed in her favor. I think people were just stunned to hear someone speak so openly and candidly and graphically about what had happened.
CHAKRABARTI: And we're speaking with Freida Mock, the director of the new documentary called "Anita." You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
And, Freida, I just want to talk for another moment about the legacy of Anita Hill's testimony at the Thomas hearings. And in order to do that, I want to play a bit more tape from 1991, and this is from Representative Nita Lowey, Democrat from New York, one of the congresswomen who came out in support of Anita Hill at the time she was giving her testimony. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED CONFIRMATION HEARING)
REPRESENTATIVE NITA LOWEY: Sexual harassment is painful. It exists. It's real. It's not imaginary. There's not only a gender gap in our country. There's a gender chasm.
CHAKRABARTI: Is that one of the lasting legacies of these hearings, that that chasm maybe has shrunk a little?
MOCK: Well, yes, I think to the extent that in workplace rights, there are policies mandated that there would be a sexual harassment training. And the legacy, too, is certainly now we see this happening and trying to address the issue on college campuses. I mean, we'd known sexual assaults have been happening forever. And so (unintelligible) right now, there are serious policy and, you know, approach to by actually women students to use Title IX to say, you know, these universities and colleges have a responsibility to create a safe campus for young women. So that legacy is very real.
But I find in the film that it was really encouraging to see the next generation of young women activists who have been inspired by Anita. And you see, for instance, young women - as an example, genders - Girls for Gender Equity organization out of New York where they do workshops in junior high and high school public schools to raise awareness about gender issues. And that part, I think, is a real legacy of what Anita, who did not set out to be a spokesperson, I think, for gender equality. She was just, at that moment, speaking her truth. But she has, I think, been transformed by the fact that she is a public figure, and she's heard upon thousands of Americans and people from around the world about this issue. And she has taken on the mantle of being a spokesperson for the rights of men and women.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Freida Mock is the filmmaker behind the new documentary "Anita." Freida, thank you so much for joining us.
MOCK: And thank you very much for having me on your show, and thank you for spotlighting "Anita," the film.
CHAKRABARTI: It's hard to believe so much time has passed.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
CHAKRABARTI: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.