Documentary Review — “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words”

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Is there any point at all in reviewing an “in his own words” documentary biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas?

Visit Metacritic or Rottentomatoes and you can pretty much guess who will pan “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” — the liberal NY Times or Washington Post — and who will endorse it — reliably right wing critics from the NY Post and elsewhere.

If you’ve read other reviews on this site, you know which way this is going, too.

The first wicked thought to cross the mind thanks to “in his own words” is that he has been very credibly accused — shown through video store records, etc. — to have perjured himself in 1991 confirmation hearings, which he, in high dudgeon, labeled “a high tech lynching.”

But as his grandfather, who was the biggest influence on his young life he says in his autobiography and in the film (some of which is Thomas reading/narrating from that book) must have taught him, a man’s good name is only as good as his word. And he lied, as a Federal judge just one year into the job thanks to grooming by President George H.W. Bush, to win a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In his own words” loses something when you’re dealing with a liar.

Still, as Thomas rarely speaks in public, and infamously went over ten years on the Court without ever asking a question or uttering during cases brought before the justices, he’s worth hearing out. Demonized and marginalized, characterized as “lazy” and worse he’s got a story and a point of view. Why not hear it out?

“Created Equal” lets Thomas paint a portrait of a Georgia childhood of hard work and struggle, if not outright want. He grew up in a South where “you assume you’re going to be discriminated against.”

He talks about his grandfather’s conversion to Catholicism, his adoration of the Irish nuns at a Savannah Catholic school he attended, his years in seminary studying to become a priest, his “radical” leftist pro-civil rights politics of the day, and even the day seminary “ended for me.”

That was in April of 1968, when he and his fellow seminarians learned the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. A classmate muttered how happy that news made him, and Thomas was out.

“Racism and race explained everything” to him, he says. “It became my new religion.”

Something happened to take him from his pre-law Holy Cross years with “my radical friends” to the radical conservative ideologue he became. He says the conversion started while he was at Yale Law, puzzling over the insistence on “busing” in Boston.

“Someone has a theory,” he hypothesizes about that form of integration, “and then they insert human beings into that thesis.”

Post-law school, he took on the only decent job he could land, with the Republican Missouri Attorney General’s office. His conversion, abrupt as it might seem, is complete, “Road to Damascus” moment included. So he says.

He went on to work at Monsanto, one of the most villainised companies on the planet.

His Federal Government/Equal Employment Opportunity Commission years consisted of weak defenses of laws that had helped him get ahead and were colored by his hiring of two speechwriters from the conservative think tank, the Claremont Institute.

By coincidence, conservative filmmaker Michael Pack, heard occasionally off-camera hazarding a respectful question, is also from the Claremont Institute.

But having this “friendly interrogator” does Thomas no favors in making a movie about him. The cherry-picked news footage of this or that “liberal” or “women’s group” in the film’s long LONG passage on his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the fact that we only hear Thomas and his wife as expert “witnesses” to the event, with Thomas sneering at the accusers and the accusations, playing dumb about his questioning, still a man “done a great disservice,” makes you wish somebody a little tougher was behind the camera.

Oscar winner Errol Morris made a fine foil for Robert McNamara and many others. He’d have made a movie more probing, more challenging and less of an ad for the judge’s book. But then, Morris is very good at getting admissions, at getting at the truth. If there’s one thing this week and these past few years have taught us, “truth” is a worrisome concept to Republicans these days.

With every Huck Finn banjo on the soundtrack, every snippet of “To Kill A Mockingbird” or Louis Armstrong singing “Moon River,” with every softball question, Pack backs away from inconvenient truths about Thomas and creates a version his rightwing fan base will adore.

This is just one side of the whole Clarence Thomas story. We get a sense of how he regards himself as thinking outside of the stereotype of what a black man of his era is expected to think, as never ever needing “equal opportunity.” But we’ve also heard how bitter he still is over the Anita Hill testimony at his hearings, the near-run thing that his nomination — underqualified (again, a Bush judge for just a year), tainted — was.

Pack doesn’t challenge Thomas on that or anything else. This portrait cries out for that, for other voices.

Whatever his intellectual bonafides, as a filmmaker Pack makes videos for the faithful — “Hollywood vs. Religion,” “Inside the Republican Revolution” and possibly edgier, but probably just as partisan — “The Fall of Newt Gingrich.”

Filmmaker Pack is a partisan hack and this is artless political agitprop.

That said, Thomas reminding the aged white conservative base of the Republican Party of what growing up under Jim Crow was like, even in the papered-over fashion Thomas presents it, even as he votes time again to dismantle voting rights or equal opportunity laws, is useful.

He made it, why can’t every other African American? You know, with a series of powerful white sponsors grooming him for a lifetime of decisions that protect the rich and the racist on the highest court in the land?

He may not say a word about the giant — Thurgood Marshall — whom he replaced on the court. His wife may hiss about how “the demons were loose” when Thomas came under harsh scrutiny. But hearing where and what he came from, and all the civil rights, voting rights and poverty programs he has helped undo — writing opinions, rarely speaking out — is still helpful to understanding why he is so hated today, even if he himself can’t see it.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including some sexual references

Cast: Clarence Thomas, Virginia Thomas

Credits: Directed by Michael Pack. A Blue Fox release.

Running time: 1:55

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