I Made A Movie About Anita Hill, A Woman Who Changed The Face Of HIstory

She still has the blue dress, but she's long since moved past the 1991 hearings.
Publish date:
March 20, 2014
entertainment, black women, civil rights, anita hill, feminist rights

When I started the “Anita” project in 2010, what I knew about Anita Hill was pretty much what the public knew through news stories and books. I thought I would make a movie that offered a fresh story about politics, power, race and issues of sexual harassment, seen from the distance and hindsight of 20 years, the time that has passed since those infamous Hill/Thomas Senate Judicial Hearings of 1991.

But today, as we are set to release the movie this week, I realize that “Anita” the movie is really a story of a rock star. The public response at its Sundance premiere and many festivals since has been visceral and emotional, with shout outs like, “We love you, Anita!” and “We believe you!”

As the film's director, I’m beginning to understand that what Anita testified to that fateful day, October 11, 1991, struck a deep, resonant chord in many that erupts in a near love fest when they see how the rest of Anita’s story unfolded. It’s not what I set out to do. It’s simply how Anita, no longer frozen in time in that iconic blue dress and now contextualized in time and place, comes across in the movie –- a fabulous, great, fun person.

At the outset, what I didn’t realize and do now is that the heart of the movie is a deeply personal family story about Anita and the Hill family. It’s a typical American story about working hard and providing for your family, but it’s also about a quintessentially African-American family whose journey mirrors that of the history of African Americans -- from slavery to freedom, through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and forward.

I was aware that Anita was a very private person, protective of both her family and her personal story. Respecting those boundaries, I knew I would not ask permission to film Anita with friends and family during personal moments and that the family story would be an aside.

So how did I get Chuck Malone, Anita’s long time partner, to be in the film and to fill in the personal story that audiences love to hear? How did we come to capture the intimate side of her large family that seemed off limits?

In the beginning, we were primarily filming the public side of Anita’s life –- her keynote talks, book signings and teaching. But I noticed a gentleman from the first day of filming and later at many of Anita’s public events, standing always to the side toward the front observing Anita and the crowd – nothing passed by him. Security was always prevalent – whether in Atlanta, Vancouver, LA, Tulsa, etc., and this man, whom I later learned was Chuck Malone, was always present, so I deduced he must be “personal security.”

In the two years of filming, I never approached or talked with Chuck directly. He and Anita were very circumspect, though on my first interview with Anita in her home in Waltham, I noticed a fabulous box of Danishes that was delivered by this man, to whom I had since been introduced in passing as Chuck.

Thankfully, my production assistant is a talker, and at a book event we were filming at the LA Public Library, she approached Chuck to chat. Later she told me, “You have to film Chuck! He told a terrific story about how they met and about the wine bottle.”

I never asked Anita a direct question about Chuck. One day, Anita called to say that Chuck told her he would like to be filmed for the movie. So toward the last year of production in 2012, I finally was able to ask some personal questions and film the great story of how Anita met Chuck. I think to the public, especially women, who saw Anita go through a wrenching experience in 1991, they are relieved to know she has a normal, good life.

Anita says that when strangers meet her today, they expect her to be wearing the blue dress, which I discovered in the last month of filming, Anita still has in her closet. I was pretty excited and asked if she’d show it to me, hence, the scene of Anita pulling out the blue dress, untouched since it was dry cleaned after the Hearings!

A few weeks ago, we had a special community screening of “Anita” in Tulsa, where many of Anita’s extended family lives. Her sister, JoAnn Fennel, sibling number 12, welcomed the packed audience at Oklahoma State University, which Anita attended before Yale Law School, and said:

“Anita and I grew up in a home where honesty was a part of our very early learning. Even if the truth was ugly or painful, telling the truth was non-negotiable. And so on that memorable day in October of 1991, watched by people around the world, she would stand upon those teachings as she stood stoic and unfaltering before those who would challenge her at every turn and spoke the painful and ugly truth.”

Introducing Anita Hill, the rock star.