"Confirmation" Writer-Producer Susannah Grant Reveals the Most Fascinating Thing Anita Hill Told Her
By Megan Angelo
Hardly a day — or, if you're on Twitter, a minute — goes by in 2016 without some discussion of sexual discrimination, whether it's in reference to your experience walking down the street or the presidential election. As we noted in our May issue, we still need the lessons of anti-sexism icon Anita Hill desperately — which is why Confirmation, the HBO film about Hill's testimony against now Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, is right on time. Ahead of Confirmation's premiere (April 16 at 8pm), we spoke with the film's writer and executive producer, Susannah Grant, about revisiting the most famous sexual harassment case of all time.
I was a little kid when Hill testified in 1991, but my parents must have given me some version of what was going on because I can remember spelling out "GO ANITA HILL" on the fridge in plastic letters. What's your personal recollection of that time?
Susannah Grant: I was in film school at the time. My strongest memory was coming back to school the following Monday [after the hearings had aired] and one of my instructors, who had had a movie open that weekend, was devastated. Nobody had gone because everyone was watching this.
Going back to the hearings in your research, what struck you most about them that you hadn't put together back then?
SG: The degree of confusion among the politicians managing the hearings was very high. It was something no one had ever tried to manage before. And they were surprised by Anita’s demeanor, her appearance, her professionalism…
Part of the reason they were surprised was that they couldn't google her. When, in the film, Joe Biden (played by Greg Kinnear), who chaired the proceedings, sees her giving a press conference, he says, "So, that's her." It hit me that in the '90s, they couldn't find her whole life on the Internet.
SG: The other thing to think about is how Twitter would have responded to these hearings. What a force that would have been.
But it's still strange that everyone in D.C., according to the film, was so sure that she would not be a threat to Clarence Thomas. It's almost like they pre-slut-shamed her — until she shows up, lots of the characters in the film seem confident that she'll come off cheap or unreliable or stupid.
SG: Everybody was stunned by her composure, her equanimity, her grace. I had the chance to talk to her in the process of writing this. She said an interesting thing that I’ll paraphrase: "I come from a family of 13 children and we’re farmers. Most situations we were entering into were ones that designed for us not to succeed. That was not unfamiliar to me." She told me that when she taught at Oral Roberts University, she had students who were uncomfortable with having a black woman in control of their academic destiny. She knew what it was like to pace through rows of white men who did not want her there. So there was something familiar to her about all this.
How did you find Hill's attitude toward a film being made about this?
SG: She's very much interested in how the story has relevance today, and how it can be used and reflected on to address to current situation [with sexual discrimination], which is alarming.
What surprised you most about her when you met her?
SG: She’s funny! She has a light spirit and is always happy for a laugh. By the way, the same is true for Clarence Thomas. I did not have the chance to talk to him — he declined our interview request — but everyone I spoke to about him said that he's joyful, with a garrulous laugh. This was two intense weeks in two people’s very full lives — not every aspect of their personalities was revealed.
The other characters in the film — largely based on the senators involved in the hearings and the staff who worked from them—are also not black-and-white at all. Everyone seems to have some level of inner conflict about who's right and wrong here, especially the female aides.
SG: The reason this thing exploded was that it tapped into an unease living in the hearts of so many American women. An unvoiced unease. I wanted to show that there were people [involved] who saw the complexity of it. I didn't speak to the vice president, but by all accounts he was aware of the complexity of the situation. He knew it was difficult, which we tried to show. The right thing itself was elusive.
With the film portraying such a complicated political incident, this had to be a wonky set. How did the cast prepare?
SG: I had read everything, and there was a lot written about it. My hotel room became a sort of lending library of all the books — the actors would come in and out, and I had tabs which book was with whom. The vibe on set was so cool. I’ve worked on a lot of movies, but I’ve never been on one where all the conversation between takes and at the craft services table was always about the subject of the movie. It was crazy. Nobody stopped talking about the issues. We were shooting in the South in the summer, and it was a traumatic summer for issues of race. We were in Atlanta when the shootings happened in South Carolina. We felt that we were touching on issues that are alive and dangerous and important, and it gave everyone a sense of seriousness about the work.
Kerry Washington plays Anita Hill with such stunning accuracy and restraint in this film. What was it like collaborating with her on it?
SG: She is as great a person, as huge an intellect, and as large of spirit as you imagine she is. One of the biggest challenges we had, early on, was: “Who doesn’t have a sex tape?” In other words, it’s hard to shock people now. So it's hard to appreciate how shocking Anita’s testimony [which included famous references such as the pubic-hair Coke can and the porn pseudonym “Long Dong Silver”] was at the time she gave it. So much of that was on Kerry to communicate. I think that part of her performance — where she is doing her civic duty by saying these things — you find yourself effortlessly in an era where people could be easily shocked.
One thing that continues to shock in this era is sexism in Hollywood, which we cover here all the time. You guys were making a movie about sexism in the workplace as members of an industry that's become known for it. Were you able to have women well-repped behind the scenes?
SG: Three of our four executive producers were women. Our first AD [assistant director] was a woman, which is unusual. We had tons of women on our crew, not to mention a whole mix of different races. And it wasn't hard to do. We just had to decide to do it. One of my favorite moments on this shoot happened when we were doing a complicated take using three cameras. I heard this very faint mechanical noise — the mic wasn’t picking it up, but I could hear it. Suddenly I realized that our DP, who had a 4 month old at the time, was using her breast pump while watching the cameras. She just hooked it up and went back to work.
Photo Credit: HBO