Many women today would be surprised that much of the training and laws in effect today to curb sexual harassment in the work place were forged and inspired after one courageous woman testified before congress. Her name was Anita Hill. She was a quiet and well-educated African American woman, a law professor and a victim of sexual harassment while working for our current Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas (prior to his Supreme Court appointment). Hill was beyond reproach during her testimony in front of congress at the confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas, and yet Thomas was confirmed and Anita Hill was sent home to face the fact that her testimony was not taken seriously. But in a world of contradictions, Hill’s testimony gave women across our nation the courage to stand and be counted and for laws to be enacted and enforce against sexual harassment. In an HBO movie titled “Confirmation,” Hill’s testimony and the behind the scenes power plays by both parties are examined. Hill is played perfectly by Golden Globe nominated actress Kerry Washington. Capturing this movie for all of us to see is filmmaker Rachel Morrison. In this exclusive interview she tells about her training, her ever expanding portfolio and how Anita Hill’s act of bravery has changed the workplace for everyone.
Rachel Morrison grew-up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her father was a Psychiatrist and taught Psychology at Harvard University, her mother was a social worker. Morrison was always behind a camera during her youth. Her family recently discovered a photograph of her with a camera in hand at the early age of five year old, “I think in a psychological way that I was trying to find a way to freeze time.”
When she entered high school her love of photography took her to the craft of cinematography. In those early years film was still being used and it was the media she learned to work with first. She received her undergraduate training at New York University and her Masters training at AFI. As with most cinematographers, the issue of film vs. digital media became part of the conversation, “AFI was geared mostly towards film and we had training using video as well. It was at time when there was talk that one day digital would become the majority and not the minority. That felt incredibly hard to believe. And it certainly happened a lot faster than most people thought it would.”
When the subject turned to our own knowledge of Anita Hill, we both realized that the frame of reference was completely determined by our own age. Reliving the Anita Hill testimony is like returning to one of the moments in history marked by something significant. In today’s ideals, it is very hard to see how Hill’s testimony was not given more credence. And Morrison had the same reaction, “You get a little more insight on what the country didn’t see, and this helps to understand a little better as to why she wasn’t believed. But overall it’s crazy that she wasn’t believed.”
Today most people are aware of what is off-limits in the work place. This is even a continuing joke on the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” And Morrison remarked, “We take it for granted now, people didn’t have a frame of reference and today we have guidelines in case we face sexual harassment. But back then there was nothing put in place, and it easier to understand why Anita Hill didn’t report Clarence Thomas for his conduct.”
“Confirmation” is an film by HBO, and I was curious what Morrison thought about the highly regarded network. “They are incredible.” She continued, “But working for HBO varies according to the genre you are working on. In any of the political work, they are very careful. I believe HBO was very fair with this film as it tells all sides of the story. And it is strange that republicans have come out against the film without even seeing it. One thing HBO has been known for is that they hire people and just let them do their job.”
Morrison is a unique cinematographer in that she was picked by John Ridley to direct two episodes of his hit TV drama “American Crime,” “Directing episodic television is not dissimilar to being a director of photography on a feature. When I am working on a feature film, I do everything in my power to translate the director’s vision into a visual language and in episodic television it’s the show runner’s vision (the show runner is often one of the writers and/or a producer of the show) that is being translated to the audience. It was really fun to direct. I don’t think I really realized how much it would speak to my skill set.”
Morrison was happy to say that she has never had any bad experience with sexism of the set, and since there are few women cinematographers in the business, she feels she is more memorable because she is a woman.
When I asked Morrison about her biggest challenge, she was eager to say, “For me, I am a drama girl. I love dramatic content. There is less and less drama being told in features context. The new place for drama and for character development is television, which is great for writers, directors and show runners. But as a director of photography I don’t want to shoot 13 episodes of the same show, and I don’t want to shoot five seasons of the same show. I love shooting movies. Finding funding for dramatic features is very difficult today. There are brilliant stories being made in the sub $1 million level, but as a director of photography it is hard to support a family at that budget.”
Morrison has a few projects in the works, “I’m gearing up to do a new movie with Dee Rees who directed ‘Bessie’ for HBO. I also did a movie called “Mudbound,” based on the book by Hilary Jordan.”
In the future Morrison can see herself shooting great dramas and perhaps directing them as well. And I wonder, if any of this would have been possible if a young woman didn’t have the courage to speak the truth in front of a nation not ready to hear it. And for this reason, Rachel Morrison and all professional women owe Hill for her courage. In 20 years from now I hope I will be shooting great dramas, and perhaps I will be directing them as well.
HBO’s “Confirmation,” will air this Saturday night at 8:00 pm.