Anita Hill on 'Confirmation,' Joe Biden's Legacy and Bill Cosby

"We've got to make the decision that we're going to reject people who behave badly, who are sexually abusive," says Hill

The HBO film 'Confirmation' revisits Anita Hill's experiences regarding the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings. Credit: Victorial Will/Invision/AP

In 1991, 35-year-old University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill was called before Congress to testify about the behavior of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her former boss at the Office for Civil Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Hill was subpoenaed by the Senate Judiciary Committee to share allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her on the job at the EEOC — the federal agency that handles workplace sexual harassment claims, among other things. For coming forward, Hill was demonized by conservatives, who called her a liar and delusional for thinking Thomas could be interested in her. Their attacks on Hill's character worked; by the end of the hearings, nearly three-quarters of the public believed she lied about Thomas. It was only in the ensuing years that a steady stream of booksinterviews and articles emerged to bolster Hill's version of events, and discredit Thomas'.

Add to that list Confirmation, a film airing April 16th on HBO, starring Kerry Washington as Hill, Wendell Pierce as Thomas and Greg Kinnear as then Judiciary Committee chair Joe Biden. Hill recently spoke to Rolling Stone about reliving her experience with the hearings via conversations with Washington and screenwriter Susannah Grant; the film's portrayal of Biden, who refused to call witnesses who would've supported Hill's claims; and all the ways America still fails victims of sexual harassment and abuse.

You participated in a 2013 documentary about your life, Anita. How was the experience different this time, with a dramatization produced by HBO?
It was entirely different from the beginning to the end. [Anita director] Freida Mock came to me and asked permission to do the documentary. That was not the case with the film that Kerry Washington, screenwriter Susannah Grant and [producer] Mike London did. They started the production and came to me for input in terms of what my experience was, but it was not a partnership or a collaboration. I simply had input to tell them how I experienced 1991. But I understand that they talked to probably scores of people from different points of view to put together the actual film that is now going to be premiering.

What were your conversations with Susannah Grant and with Kerry Washington like?
There were questions about, "How did you experience it?" "What were you feeling?" "What did you know?" "What did you think was going to happen?" "Were you surprised?" "How did it feel moment to moment as the situation evolved?" The conversations were very, very intense.

Emotionally intense?
Yes. As you can imagine, I'm going back and really trying to relive one of the worst — at least in terms of interactions with a political body — the worst experience that I had ever had in my life to give them a sense of what it was like to live in that moment. Yes, they were very intense.

How does the finished film compare with your memories of the hearings?
I will say that [Confirmation] is not just about my memories. One of the things that occurred in 1991, when people were watching it: This was almost like political reality TV being played out in front of people, on their television sets and on radio. What we didn't know at the time were some of the things that were going on behind the scenes. I knew what was happening with my team and how hard we were working, but we didn't know — I certainly didn't know — what was going on on behalf of Clarence Thomas behind the scenes, and that's one of the things that the film truly does bring that I don't think most people know. That's a fresh part of the story.

Former Sens. John Danforth (Clarence Thomas' former boss and patron in the Senate) and Alan Simpson (who sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee) are among the politicians who have threatened to sue HBO over what they characterize as the film's inaccuracies. What's your reaction to that?
Well, there are things that I think I had to come to grips with: That this is an adaptation, it's not a documentary. It's not a documentary. There were, for example, composite characters, the sort of thing that, as a lawyer and a professor and as someone who was involved, kind of bothered me. Language that was used or things that were portrayed weren't exactly the way that people were behaving in that moment.

I don't really know what they're taking issue with — that's not my concern — but my sense is that if either of them [Danforth or Simpson] were doing the film, it would be different. But the same is true of me. If I were doing the film, there would be a different focus. But I think we have to be clear that much of the information that is conveyed in that film — which might be controversial — is very well-documented from a whole variety of sources. So, I'm not quite sure what it is they are taking issue with, but the documentation was there.

You've said in the past that Joe Biden did "a disservice to me, a disservice more importantly, to the public"? And since the film came out there have been reports that the vice president (or intermediaries for him) lobbied to make changes to the film's portrayal of Biden. Did his portrayal in the film ring true to you?
In terms of my interaction with him? Yes, the portrayal does ring true. It was really kind of eerie, I think, how Greg Kinnear was able to bring him to life. When you see his character portrayed on the screen, it really does give you a feeling that you're listening to Joe Biden, the senator — Joe Biden at the time. I can only say in terms of my interaction, and the interactions with people from my team, that the portrayal is accurate.

At the time of the hearings, more Americans believed Thomas' testimony than believed yours. You have to assume that these behind-the-scenes machinations you mention that went on behalf of Clarence Thomas were a big factor in shaping public opinion. One of the Republican operatives who led the campaign to discredit you at the time, David Brock, later came out and apologized, and admitted he made things up. Do admissions like that feel like vindication?
That's the word! That's the word I often get. I've kind of resisted that word because in my mind, I've always known why I was there, that what I was saying was true. That it was my experience. I knew I had support for it when my witnesses came forward. I didn't feel so much like I needed vindication, but I think the important message to get from this is how much power there was behind keeping me quiet, or silencing me, or making what I said sound untruthful or unimportant.

The level that it went to, from all indications, is that it went all the way to the White House, whether you're talking about David Brock or you're talking about the team that was put together at the time of my testimony. There was just this huge machine that was attempting to take a citizen and really make her ineffective in the process. And that's what we were up against.

I like to remind people that I was subpoenaed to testify, and when I answered the subpoena and I made myself available, I was treated horribly by the process. I think that should be the lesson, if the issue is sexual harassment or any number of issues that can be brought to your government and representatives. Citizens should have the right and should be able to exercise their obligation to provide information to processes, and they should be treated with respect and decency. When you think about the individual versus this huge power — I think if you get nothing else from the film, get the sense of what that was like for us [going up against that].

You've said of the hearings, "I had a gender and he had a race," which I took to mean that the senators essentially ignored your race by giving credence to Thomas' comment that the hearings were a "high-tech lynching." Is that right?
Here I was, an African-American woman essentially being accused by Clarence Thomas of provoking his lynching. Historically, that is just a fallacy. There was never in the case of lynching — there is just no evidence that African-American women had ever had the power to call for someone to be lynched. Secondly, it ignores the history of sexual abuse of African-American women, and so if you look at the film what you'll see is that they were willing — even the public, 70 percent of the public when they were polled after the hearings believed Clarence Thomas. Even the public, they were willing to dismiss my experience as insignificant, both racially and in terms of gender. 

What the committee did to reinforce that was to take the three other African-American women, who wanted to testify about similar experiences with Clarence Thomas, and to dismiss those women, too — not even call them forward to testify. In the case of Angela Wright [played in the film by Jennifer Hudson], to trash her before she was even able to take the stand and then not taking her testimony. We know how important it is to have a person there speaking on their own behalf. There was a woman named Rose Jourdain, a friend of Angela Wright's, who could have testified to how painful it was for Angela Wright to go through the behavior that Thomas put her through — the sexual behavior and the pressing for dates and the commenting about her body in the workplace. And then there was a woman named Sukari Hardnett who testified about just the general culture and the hostile environment of [Thomas' workplace]. If you were a young African-American woman, you knew where you stood in terms of the environment there.

You had three African-American women there; nevertheless, they were dismissive of us and our experiences and chose to go with what his experience was. People say, "Well that was really more about his race," but in the eyes of the Senate, it was about his gender. It was about male privilege. Who do you believe? You believe the guy who is a guy like you. And I think that is where the Senate came in on that.

In the eyes of the Senate, it was about [Clarence Thomas'] gender. It was about male privilege. Who do you believe? You believe the guy who is a guy like you.

For me, this brings to mind the trial of Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who targeted women of color, and who seemed to have counted on the fact that those women either wouldn't come forward or, if they did, wouldn't be believed. And I think of Bill Cosby. It seems clear we, as a society, are still terribly failing women of color. How do we change that? 
Well, let me just say, I think at the time [of the Thomas hearings] they saw that we had very little social capital and very little political capital in Washington. If you're going to take advantage of somebody, you're going to target somebody who has no social capital or, on the totem pole, limited social and political capital, and that's what happened with Holtzclaw.

In many ways, the situation with Bill Cosby complicates that because they [the women who've come forward against him] were not just women of color. What we found was in fact there were a number of white women — there were scores of them — and we still tended to believe that the male experience was the experience that was more truthful and more honest and a more realistic portrayal of the reality of the situation.

How do we change that? It's going to take undoing centuries, if not longer, of devaluing women — all women. Adding race to it only makes it harder to overcome. I think today we're in a better position to do that, by listening to women's experiences and honoring the truth of our experiences and putting aside all of these myths that we've heard about women in these situations and what we're supposed to believe versus looking at the reality. Now we have polling that talks about sexual harassment, whether it's on campus or in the workplace. We have polling that talks about how many women have been sexually assaulted in their lives and the proportion of women that have experienced sexual assault, and it's astronomical.

The evidence is there, and we just have to have the courage, as a society, to recognize that and then make some of the hard decisions to turn that around. We've got to put into place the right processes, we've got to be able to call on women to hear their stories, and finally, we've got to make the decision that we're going to reject people who behave badly, who are sexually abusive. And I don't think we have to demonize those people in every case when someone is a harasser, but we have to make decisions, like, yeah, that does disqualify you from being a Supreme Court justice if we find that you have been sexually abusive; yes, that disqualifies you from being a faculty member if you've been harassing your students, if you're an administrator who harasses your staff; and if you're a student who is guilty of sexual assault then yes, you should be removed from the college campus.

There are no pat answers and formulas or three-step processes for getting it done, but those are the broad parameters of how we're going to have to move forward on these issues. Recognizing it, acknowledging it, bringing women into the process as full participants who can testify honestly about their experiences, and then being willing to make hard decisions.