Anita Hill on the 'Surreal' Hearings That Changed Her Life and the Country

3:55 PM PST 03/21/2014 by Chris O'Falt

She tells her story in a new doc titled "Anita," 22 years after accusing Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

In October 1991, race, sex, and politics collided when Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill accused her former boss and Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of repeatedly sexually harassing her. It set off a media circus that captivated the country as Thomas called the hearing a "high-tech lynching," while incredulous senators tripped over themselves asking questions about pubic hairs on Coke cans.

The new documentary Anita, with the advantage of two decades of distance and unprecedented access to its subject, aims to cut through the controversy to give an intimate portrait of the woman who was at the center of the maelstrom.

"Even with 22 years hindsight, it seem surreal," Hill tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The kind of things that were being said by the senators -- the idea that they had never heard of sexual harassment, that people that do these types of things were monsters and certainly not anybody they knew."

"Then there were all the things about the myths about being scorned and the complete misinformation about the problem," she continues. "Based on what's happened over the last 22 years, I think that's why it seems so bizarre that our elected officials, who are supposed to be somewhat informed, were able to say those things."

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After the hearing, seven out of 10 Americans polled believed Hill had perjured herself and Thomas went on to be confirmed. The stark image, though, of a poised 35-year-old African-American woman grappling with the older, all white and male committee (chaired by now Vice President Joseph Biden), who acted like they never knew women experienced sexual harassment, sparked a national conversation.

At its heart, Anita is not about Hill-versus-Thomas, who plays a surprisingly small role in the film via archival footage. Rather, it's about the changes the infamous hearing brought to the country and to Hill's own life.

"The public stepped up and wouldn't let that Senate hearing be the last word," Hill explains. "The public conversation started taking place, and women started talking about their experiences. There were finally reporters, who were outside the Washington Press Corps, who started seeing this not as a political story, but as a story about working women's everyday lives and started reporting on it as such and started gathering information."

Although she maintained a quiet dignity in 1991, it's obvious from the old news footage dug up by director Freida Mock that Hill was an ordinary citizen who was overwhelmed by being thrust into the public spotlight.

Hill tried to return to her life and career as a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, finding herself under constant attack by conservatives. Soon after, Hill realized she would not be able to ignore the fact that she had become a public figure and embraced her role as the face of sexual harassment awareness.

She left Oklahoma, where she was raised the youngest of 13 children, and moved to Massachusetts to work at Brandeis University. "I moved out of teaching law to law students to teaching at a policy school, so I can meet people making policies and understand the large issues stemming from inequality, that perhaps the law doesn't get at in a broad scale," explains Hill.

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Over the years, Hill had been approached by numerous news entities wanting to tell her story. But she chose Mock, she says, because she didn't want her life story to be reduced to what happened in 1991.

"The one thing I wanted to be sure of was that I wanted to be treated as a complete person and not just as that person sitting at that hearing. My life didn't begin there, and it didn't end there. I knew Freida's style would give the viewers a sense of the whole person," Hill says.

She insists there were no ground rules set, except that she would agree to a certain number of interviews with Mock. But she's thrilled with how the film turned out, largely because it is forward-looking.

"If you see this film," says Hill, "you'll see how were going to confront sexual harassment for the next generation of people and how we were going to put in the right procedures and policies."

Anita opens today in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

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