An Interview with Freida Lee Mock About Her Film “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power”

January 30, 2015   •   By David Palumbo-Liu

HOW TO CAPTURE the intensity of a momentous Senate hearing that took place nearly a quarter of a century ago? We too often lose a sense of the historical moment, especially with our increasingly fast-paced lives habituated to tweets and posts, not deliberate and reflective journalism. But filmmaker Freida Lee Mock has the uncanny knack for making us pause and reflect by choosing for her subjects individuals who have made history, and drawing out their human dimension in ways we can all understand. This makes their achievements both more real, and more impressive. She has done this with figures such as Maya Lin, Herbert Zipper, and Tony Kushner. Lin is the architect who designed the Vietnam Memorial, and is the subject of Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, which won an Academy Award in 1994. Never Give Up: The 20th Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper tells the story of Vienna-born musician and conductor Zipper, who survived Dachau, Buchenwald, and a Japanese concentration camp to become one of the great music educators of the world, and was continuing, at age 92, to bring music to the inner city schools of America and to youth orchestras in China and Europe; it was an Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary Short Film in l996. Among her many other films is Wrestling with Angels, a feature-length documentary on playwright Tony Kushner. All in all, Mock has received an Academy Award, five Academy Award nominations, two prime-time Emmy Awards, and three prime-time Emmy nominations.

In October I invited her to screen her new film, Anita Hill: Speaking Truth to Power, at Stanford. Like her other films, this one creates a narrative that links the intimacy of the personal with the significance of collective history. In this case, Mock linked the significance of the 1991 Senate Judiciary hearings on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, to the personal story of Anita Hill, whose testimony galvanized a generation of activists around the issue of sexual harassment. As legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon said, Hill’s testimony set off a “cascade of equality aspirations” that continue forcefully today, as seen particularly in the efforts to end sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus.

I sat down with Freida Lee Mock to ask her about how she came to make the film, her filmmaking process, and her current projects.


DAVID PALUMBO-LIU: Okay, so first of all, how did you come to make this film?

FREIDA LEE MOCK: Anita: Speaking Truth to Power came about because of a phone call I received in 2009. The caller said she admired my film “Wrestling With Angels,” about the playwright Tony Kushner and asked if I would send the film to a friend whose name she didn’t mention. The call peaked my interest when she said that her friend is often asked to participate in a documentary and that she wanted her friend to see a well-made film. Well, that was flattering. I was curious and thought that this must be a well-known person, and I said I’m happy to send the film, just give me the address. When she said the name, “Anita Hill,” I remember my voice rising and repeating loudly to myself, “Anita Hill!?!” I had not really thought about her much since the 1991 hearings as she was not in the news much, but I immediately thought a film on Anita Hill could be terrific.

I sent Anita the film Maya Lin along with the Tony Kushner one, and enclosed a note saying that if you are going to say “yes” to a filmmaker, would you please consider me? That was all. And a couple of weeks later I received a call from Anita who asked, “What do you have in mind?”

Honestly, I really had nothing fully developed in mind about what the film story would be, but I intuitively knew — and said to Anita — that it would be a film “about the life and times of Anita Hill.” As a filmmaker I often have a sense of the heart of a film, but really do not know what the film story will be until Iʼve done what I call the “big picture” research, both reading primary and secondary sources.

So the quick answer is that the opportunity arose for me to create a film about Anita Hill, the times and issues as the 20th anniversary of the 1991 Senate hearings was nearing (in 2011). I felt that with the distance of time and perspective, a 20 year time frame would allow us to understand more clearly what was behind the tumultuous hearings, and what turned out to be sensational testimony about the fitness and character of the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and Anita’s role. I believe the public, including myself, was confused about what the 1991 Senate hearings were supposed to be about — why Anita as a subpoenaed witness was turned in to what seemed to be an adversarial role with hostile questions by the Senators.

In hindsight we now know there were intense behind-the-scenes maneuverings because of the high stakes involved: the future of the Supreme Court. From the moment we turned on the TV in the fall of 1991, we all still vividly remember a young woman in a blue suit, a very composed person speaking with clarity, grace, and intelligence about something that we hadn’t heard spoken about so publicly and graphically — sexual harassment. And we were all riveted. But we also witnessed what seemed like a battle, a contest between Anita Hill and, in a separate frame, the nominee: Clarence Thomas. It was like a jousting match.

So I felt that a film on Anita Hill offered a chance to tell a story about a fairly unknown person who had an extraordinary impact on the working lives of women and men, and really changed the course of contemporary history. I think the story and issues were all lost in the sensationalism of the 1991 hearings, and I was particularly curious to know what impact they had on Anita’s life and work, and what has happened to the issues of gender equality and sexual harassment in the 20 years that followed.

What kinds of things were challenging, interesting, or unexpected, in the course of making the film? Youʼve done a number of films centering on an individual thatʼs extraordinary. But you also make them ordinary in the sense that they become very, very human and fleshed out. Talk about some of the things that struck you particularly about this subject.

I knew that I wanted to tell the story of Anita Hill — who she was, where she came from, what motivated her in her work and life — you might say I wanted to reach a full understanding of this person who has had an extraordinary impact on issues of sexual harassment. I realize, though she gave testimony to the factual contours of her life in the hearings — that she was a professor of law, the last of 13 children, that she grew up on a farm in a religious family — somehow these facts receded because of the explosive testimony at the time. 20 years later some basic questions came to mind — how did she go from here to there, from a small rural Oklahoma town to the halls of power in DC? What is it like to grow up as an African American family during the Jim Crow era? How do you, as a parent, raise children with a sense of self worth and respect, and a sense of possibilities, when you know that such an environment is hostile to equal opportunity and human rights? And yet, you see this young woman in 1991, clearly raised in a way that gave her this incredible foundation to sit alone before an all white male Senate Judiciary Committee — to be able to confront a hostile, tense situation and maintain her clarity and purpose, her “cool.”

I knew I wanted to tell a very personal story against the backdrop of the legal, historical, and social times. As a filmmaker, I’m drawn to stories that are embedded in a social, historical, and political context. Those were the joys of trying to figure out how I was going tell that story. I knew, too, that the voices of individuals who could help tell that story were people who were not experts, but who were witnesses to that time, and had a personal connection to Anita — such as her lead attorney at the hearings, Professor Charles Ogletree. I think he was especially illuminating about how Anita’s testimony divided the black community, especially the men, and why he felt he wanted to speak up at that time on her behalf, and on that of women.

I asked myself broad questions about who would best help us understand Anita and that period. Should I interview Vice President Biden [who presided over the hearings as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee]? I knew that was pretty hopeless in 2010, because the 2012 Presidential campaign was in full swing, and I thought it was too risky for Vice President Biden to be on camera, talking about how he chaired the hearings on Clarence Thomas’s fitness and character for a Supreme Court appointment, and guided the graphic testimony on sexual harassment.

For a moment I considered whether I should contact Clarence Thomas, but knew that one, it was well-known that he doesn’t give interviews, and two, he would likely criticize Anita Hill, as he did in his autobiography, to which she wrote a response in an op-ed piece in The New York Times to set the record straight. She wrote that he was rewriting her history.

When it came to Clarence Thomas I thought: it’s not his story I want to tell, it’s Anita’s story. And he is just a part of what defined her publicly, in the sense that they had a professional working relationship at one time.

The other considerations were: should I interview the remaining members of the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee, whether they be Alan Simpson, Orrin Hatch, or Patrick Leahy? I thought, “What would they say?” They’re politicians, and probably need to maintain their official record on these matters. I didn’t think they would add to the truth and authenticity that we wanted in a story about Anita. So I dismissed all that.

I did think it would be interesting to talk to the three subpoenaed witnesses, especially Angela Wright, who was ultimately never called to testify by the Chair. But then I thought that it would appear that the filmmaker was trying to determine who was telling the truth and who was not, and I felt this was entering treacherous ground because of the political divide that continues today over the hearings.

I felt that I would be creating a schism in the storytelling, in that I would appear to be taking an advocacy position, and as I really wanted the film to be a story about Anita, this was not the purpose of the film I wanted to direct and produce. I simply wanted to tell her story, which had never been done on film.

So is this something that’s unique to this film in terms of ones youve made?

Yes. When I first began working as a documentary filmmaker, I thought I’d do it in the tradition of “agitprop,” being an advocate in the muckraking sense. I loved studying the era of muckraking in American history when I was in college. In a few years I began to love the art and craft of storytelling in films, and realized that my original “agitprop” approach was essentially trying to tell the audience what to think — that didn’t respect the them and was insulting. I thought they could make their own decisions if the stories, characters, themes, and ideas were entertaining, riveting, and engaging.

If the viewer can empathize with and understand a story, and if there are great political, social, and human questions raised, the viewer is going to be much more drawn in and thoughtful about the themes that I hope they see within the core story — we identify with characters who have interesting, fascinating, and unique qualities. I felt Anita Hill certainly does!

I mean, this film certainly did, especially for young women.

Yes, and actually for men, too. I remember a man who said to me after a screening: “Back then I thought she was lying. I didn’t believe her then, but now I do. I am a Republican. I’m a very successful businessman, but today after seeing your film, I began to see what was actually going on — it was spin, and I believed the spin.”

Wow, that's amazing.

Yes, and that’s what I love about film — that it can open your eyes. It’s an art form that uses many elements to engage your mind, heart, and spirit. I didn’t understand what actually was going on in the 1991 hearings until I started researching the story and reading, especially the book Strange Justice by the eminent journalist writers Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, which I highly recommend. It’s a definitive book on the hearings, and gives an insight into the politics, issues, and characters involved at the time. It’s a fantastic read!

I think the public turned on the TV that Columbus Day weekend expecting the usual “dry hearing.” But what we encountered was an explosive and unforgettable TV viewing experience. What was illuminating to me was when Anita talked about all the people who volunteered to help her prepare for the hearings — the attorneys and particularly the corroborating witnesses.

They were jeopardizing their careers — some were in mid-career, up for tenure; one was a judge — but willing to face the consequences “for sticking their necks out,” so to speak. They did not consult with Anita, but independently contacted the Senate Committee because they felt it was their duty to come forward. They did this not realizing initially that the opposition had created dossiers on them to rebut their testimony.

The politics behind getting Clarence Thomas confirmed for the Supreme Court were intense, with the threat of Anita Hill testifying at the 11th hour. It was the Congresswomen and the public who became active within a week’s timeframe, and demanded that Anita Hill testify about Clarence Thomas.

Where would we be in our understanding of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and reform if Anita Hill did not raise those issues in the 1991 Senate hearings? Where would we be in addressing sexual assault on college campuses and the military today if Anita had not testified on those issues in such a public forum? The hearings gave voice to Anita’s experience, and have influenced her to encourage all of us to find our voices, to be active and to speak up, whether small or large with our friends, neighbors, or in local and national communities. That’s the lesson from that period, and the impact it has had 20 years later in both Anita’s life and our community and country.

Yes, it really is. Let me ask you, what you are working on now?

Right now I’m working on and directing a feature documentary film, the Heroes Project, which involves filming on Mt. Everest in the spring of 2015. It’s an extraordinary story about seven amputee veterans, against all odds, attempting to climb the highest mountains in the world on every continent, the Seven Summits. It’s a story about strength, resilience, the human spirit, and triumphing over the impossible. It’s an inspiring story not only for injured veterans dealing with the challenges of recovery, but for all of us at a crossroads in our life, and discovering the heroic possibilities in us when faced with impossible odds.

It’s a great story of courage and perseverance. Six of the Seven Summits have been climbed by single and double amputees, and Charlie Linville — a single amputee from Boise, Idaho — is attempting Everest with a great team of supporters.

We’ll finish the film by the end of this year, and I want you to see it!


David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University.