Producer: Michael Pack Director: Michael Pack Screenplay: Michael Pack Stars: Clarence Thomas, Virginia Thomas Distributor: Manifold Productions
Clarence Thomas, Associate Supreme Court Justice since 1991, is known for his reticence on the bench during oral arguments; it had been seven years since he’d asked a lawyer a question before he did so in 2013. But he has given talks to various groups over the years, and published a memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” in 2007.
Much of the autobiographical material in that book is covered again in this documentary, in which Thomas, looking directly into the camera, talks about his life and judicial philosophy; the only other person interviewed, at then not at great length, is his second wife, Virginia. Thomas’ presentation is accompanied by archival material—found footage to provide historical context; still photographs; news footage, most notably of the contentious Senate confirmation hearings in the course of which Thomas defended himself against charges of sexual misconduct by Anita Hill; and some newly-shot inserts—of Thomas interacting with his clerks, for example. A running visual motif is of a canoe gliding through the waters of the swamps and marshes in the Georgia coastal lands where Thomas was raised, taking a new path as changes in his life are discussed.
And those changes were considerable. Thomas talks of his impoverished childhood, his absent father, and his move to live with his maternal grandparents in Savannah after the family shack in Pin Point was destroyed in a fire. As in his book, Thomas devotes a good deal of discussion to the influence of his stern grandfather Myers Anderson, who imbued him with a reverence for hard work and self-reliance.
Thomas goes on to discuss his Catholic upbringing and his decision to enter the seminary to study for the priesthood. But he became disenchanted with the church for its failure to take a firm stance on civil rights, and became radicalized during his studies at the College of the Holy Cross, where he was an activist in the formation of a Black Student Union. He then went to Yale Law School.
He explains that his radical views were altered when he read libertarian economist Thomas Sowell and novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, and became a self-described originalist in his interpretation of the constitution. After serving in various capacities in Missouri and Washington—his major patron was Senator John Danforth—he was appointed to the bench by George H.W. Bush, who also nominated him to the Supreme Court.
Thomas relates all this autobiographical material in a straightforward way, only occasionally showing flashes of anger, as in his discussion of the 1991 confirmation battle, and moments of regret, as when his grandfather expressed disappointment in him. But he balances such moments with more genial ones, such as his description of how he and his wife enjoy travelling the country in an RV.
This is, it must be emphasized, entirely Thomas’ story; there are no divergent or contrasting views presented, except in some of the archival clips (Hill’s charges, for example, are presented only in terms of his dismissive reaction to them), so one should not expect an objective analysis of the character and career of a man who, after all, remains very controversial. It is unabashedly a self-portrait, with all the limitations that entails; but Thomas has led a fascinating life, and Pack’s film gives him free rein to reflect on it in his own way.
“Created Equal”—a title indicating the concern with racism that runs through Thomas’ story—is technically a simple, unadorned film, with straightforward camerawork by James Callanan and editing by Faith Jones. But though cinematically unimaginative, it gives Thomas the opportunity to explain his personal development on screen just as he did in his printed memoir, and for many that will be enough.