January 31, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Michael Pack
Culture Representation: This documentary only interviews U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, who are upper-class religious conservatives.
Culture Clash: In the movie, Clarence Thomas tells his life story, including conflicts he’s had over politics, race and his biggest scandal: allegations from Anita Hill (a law professor and former co-worker) that he repeatedly sexually harassed her.
Culture Audience: “Created Equal” will appeal primarily to conservatives and admirers of Clarence Thomas, but people of any or no political persuasion might be curious to see the movie because it’s a rare video interview of Thomas as a sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Regardless of what people might think of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, he’s certainly led a life of extremes. Born in 1948 as the middle child of a single mother who was a maid (his father left the family when he was just 2 years old), he’s gone from growing up poor in segregated Pin Point, Georgia, to becoming a wealthy member of society’s elite as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. He’s gone from being a radical left-wing Democrat who shared the same views as Black Panthers to becoming a Libertarian and then a conservative Republican. He’s gone from being the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to being someone whose reputation will be forever tainted by allegations from women (most notably, Anita Hill) that he sexually harassed them. Thomas denies all of these allegations.
What does Thomas think about his life and how he’s dealt with his biggest challenges? He thinks he’s a misunderstood survivor who’s been able to withstand the constant criticism and prejudices he’s faced his entire life. From an early age, his own mother described him as “stubborn.” For better or worse, he says that stubborn personality trait has both hurt and helped him through his toughest obstacles.
This narrowly focused biographical documentary (directed, written and produced by Michael Pack) interviews only two people: Clarence Thomas and his second wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having the couple as the only people interviewed in the film, but if the filmmakers wanted to stay true to the subtitle of the documentary (“Clarence Thomas in His Own Words”), it would have been a better choice to only interview Clarence Thomas and stick to that concept. Ginni Thomas (who is an advocate/fundraiser for politically conservative groups) is clearly an adoring and devoted wife, but her unwavering support of her husband is expected and doesn’t add anything new or particularly insightful to this profile of Justice Thomas.
By having a spouse interviewed for this film, it looks more like a family home movie, and it opens up other questions: If someone other than the documentary subject is going to be interviewed, why not just interview more people who know Clarence Thomas too? Having several interviews with various people would have been a more conventional way to make the documentary, but if the filmmakers wanted to take the more unconventional approach of it being a movie about Clarence Thomas reflecting on his life “in his own words,” it would have been more consistent with this first-person-viewpoint premise to just let only Justice Thomas take the proverbial podium.
Fortunately, the filmmakers took a responsible approach by including the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of Clarence Thomas’ life. Some people might assume before seeing this documentary that it’s a very one-sided film, but the criticism and scandals that Clarence Thomas have faced over the years are not ignored and actually get more screen time than a lot of people might expect. Even if the documentary doesn’t have new interviews with Clarence Thomas supporters (except for his wife) or detractors, other perspectives are shown though archival news footage and other media coverage. Many of the editorials that blast Thomas for being a “race traitor,” “Uncle Tom” and accused “sexual harasser” are included in the film. Footage of protests and speeches against him are also part of the documentary.
The interviews with Clarence Thomas and Ginni Thomas are done in close-up, in a stark room that could pass for a TV studio. Documentary filmmaker Pack (who doesn’t appear on camera) is sometimes heard asking the questions. Clarence Thomas’ demeanor ranges from calm and almost detached when he describes much of his youth to emotionally agitated when he talks about attacks he says he’s endured from his critics and enemies.
He previously opened up extensively about his life in his 2007 book, “My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir.” Therefore, much of that information is repeated in this documentary. The film also includes excerpts from the audio book. One of the best qualities of “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” is its skillful editing of archival footage to put into context a lot of what is being said on screen.
The first half of the movie covers Clarence Thomas’ life before he was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court. A crucial turning point in his childhood was when he and his younger brother were sent to his mother’s parents: Myers Anderson (whom Clarence Thomas describes as “stern”) and Christine Anderson (whom he describes as “sweet as can be”).
Myers Anderson would end up being the most influential adult in Clarence Thomas’ life, and it’s clear that it was his approval that Clarence Thomas wanted the most. Myers Anderson was a farmer who dropped out of elementary school and could barely read and write, but he instilled in Clarence the importance of education, hard work and discipline. Clarence Thomas was educated at Catholic schools, which led to his enrollment as the only black student at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Missouri. In 1968, he left Conception Seminary College after becoming disillusioned with the Catholic Church for refusing to be pro-actively involved in the civil-rights movement and after hearing a racist remark from a seminary priest who allegedly said that Martin Luther King Jr. deserved to be assassinated.
Clarence Thomas’ grandfather Myers was so upset that Clarence quit college that he kicked Clarence out of the house, and they were estranged for many years, even after he enrolled as a student at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Clarence Thomas then became a left-wing Democrat in his late teens and early 20s. Although he’s a Catholic, Thomas says in the documentary that race issues became his primary religion at that time in his life. He met his first wife, Kathy Ambush (a fellow student), while at Holy Cross, and they married the day after his graduation in 1971.
While enrolled in Yale Law School, he became a “lazy Libertarian,” as he says in the documentary. And after the birth of his first and only child, Jamal, his political views began to sway more to the right when he saw the effects of forced integration through busing of black students to predominately white schools, and white students being bused to predominantly black schools.
Clarence Thomas says the violence and other disastrous effects of the forced school busing convinced him that it was an ineffectual way to achieve racial equality. As he says in the documentary: “Nobody was going to have some social experiment and throw my son in there.” Even though Clarence Thomas would eventually mend his relationship with his grandfather Myers, he says in the documentary that it still hurts him deeply that his grandfather and other family members did not attend his graduation from Yale.
If Myers Anderson was the most influential person in Clarence Thomas’ life, then John “Jack” Danforth (a former U.S. senator and attorney general for Missouri) was the most influential person in Clarence Thomas’ career. Thomas says that after he graduated from Yale, it was difficult for him to get a job—and he makes it clear that it was probably because of racism. As Thomas tells it, Danforth was the first and only person at the time who offered him a job: as an assistant district attorney. Thomas was reluctant to take the offer since Danforth was a Republican, and Thomas didn’t like Republicans at that time. But he ended up taking the job, which opened up new opportunities for him, including becoming chairman of the EEOC, a position he held from 1982 to 1990.
In 1981, Clarence Thomas and first wife Kathy separated, and they divorced in 1984. In the documentary, he is abrupt and vague when asked why his first marriage fell apart. He says that “things just didn’t work.” And when the interviewer comments that the divorce must’ve been hard on everyone, Clarence Thomas also comments in a dismissive tone when describing his feelings at the time: “Yeah, well you live with it.”
As reluctant as he is to talk about his first marriage, he practically gushes when talking about his marriage to Republican lobbyist Virginia “Ginni” Lamp, whom he calls “a gift from God.” They met at a political conference and got married in 1987. Ginni’s political influence and connections no doubt affected her husband’s life because by 1989, Clarence Thomas was a federal judge appointed by President George Bush Sr.
Becoming a federal judge was not something that Thomas says he really wanted, but he was convinced to take the position by Bush and other Republican power players. Clarence Thomas’ career trajectory, by his own admission, follows a certain pattern: He showed initial reluctance to take an opportunity given to him by a Republican, starting with his first post-law-school job with Danforth (who became his unofficial mentor) and then continuing to President George Bush Sr. appointing him as a federal judge and then nominating him as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Thomas already talked about it in his memoir, but he reiterates in the documentary that he really had no ambitions to be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and he was surprised that Bush nominated him.
It’s clear that Thomas’ acceptance by Republicans who had a positive affect on his life and career are eventually what changed his outlook toward the Republican Party. He no longer considered Republicans his enemy; he considered a lot of Republicans to be his allies and friends. It’s quite an about-face from the former hardcore left-wing Democrat. To understand why Thomas is the way he is now, he gives some insight when he says in the documentary that he’d rather deal with people who are open about being bigots, compared to liberals who claim to be open-minded but are really hypocrites who also practice selective discrimination.
The second half of the movie (the part that many people would consider the most newsworthy) covers the controversial 1991 U.S. Senate hearings over Clarence Thomas becoming a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Anita Hill’s allegations and what life has been like for Thomas since then. “The attacks started immediately,” Thomas says in the documentary, as his demeanor and voice change from calm to fired-up.
He also doesn’t mince words over why he thinks so many people opposed his confirmation as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. He claims that the Senate hearings were a witch hunt against him by Democrats who tried to trap him into publicly voicing his opinion on abortion. And he believes that his opponents have this opinion of him: “This is the wrong black guy.”
Throughout much of the film, Clarence Thomas states that because he’s a conservative, he doesn’t fit the mold of what people think black men should be—and that makes people uncomfortable. But, as he points out, the idea that black people and other people of color should automatically be politically liberal is in itself a racist stereotype. He’s also unequivocal in stating that he thinks many liberals (especially those in the media) are hypocritical when it comes to free speech, since conservative viewpoints are frequently excluded and discriminated against.
As for Hill’s allegations, Clarence Thomas still denies them all. He and Ginni show a lot of anger and indignation in describing how the allegations nearly destroyed his life, but they also express gratitude to the people who supported them throughout the controversy. The hearings, presided over by then-Delaware U.S. Senator Joe Biden, included salacious accusations that while Clarence Thomas was Hill’s supervisor at the EEOC in the early ’80s, he persistently asked her out on dates, which she says she refused. Hill also said that Thomas commented to her on the size of women’s breasts, and he described to her in explicit detail the pornography that he liked to watch.
Regardless of which side people were on, the hearings undoubtedly made sexual harassment an issue that got more news coverage than it had ever gotten before, long before the #MeToo movement ever existed. The controversy also sparked debates over how an accuser should be judged for when and how the accuser comes forward with the allegations. Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court was approved by a U.S. Senate vote of 52 to 48.
Clarence Thomas, who says he never watched Hill’s testimony, comments in the documentary that the FBI told him that Hill’s allegations were uncorroborated. However, in all factual fairness, Hill did have several witnesses testify that she told them about the alleged harassment at the time the harassment allegedly happened. Clarence Thomas does not comment on these witnesses’ sworn testimonies in this documentary, and it’s unknown if the filmmakers asked him to comment on those testimonies and reports that there were other female accusers who came forward but were not called to testify. Likewise, Ginni Thomas does not comment in the documentary about the voice mail she left for Anita Hill in 2010, when she called Hill’s office at Brandeis University and asked her when she was going to make an apology for lying about the harassment.
That voice mail message serves as the opening for the 2014 documentary “Anita Hill: Speaking Truth to Power” (directed by Freida Lee Mock), which chronicled the sexual harassment controversy and Hill’s current life as a public speaker and advocate for human rights. That documentary was also very sympathetic to its subject, since almost everyone who was interviewed is a supporter of Hill.
Why is Clarence Thomas doing an authorized documentary about himself now? One can only speculate, but the timing is interesting. History seemed to repeat itself in 2018 with the politically divisive confirmation of Brett Kavanagh (a conservative Republican) as a U.S Supreme Court Justice. Kavanaugh also faced accusations of sexual misconduct that allegedly took place several years before and were made public shortly after he had been nominated for the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh’s nomination was approved by the U.S. Senate in a 50 to 48 vote. And no, Clarence Thomas does not comment on Kavanaugh in this documentary. That’s not a surprise, because it would be rude and unprofessional for Thomas to publicly comment on fellow U.S. Supreme Court Justices when they currently working together.
Thomas’ participation in this documentary will inevitably be compared to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s decision to participate in the 2018 hit documentary “RBG” (directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West), which received several awards and an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. “RBG” had unprecedented access to Ginsburg, including showing her doing her physical workout routines and spending time with her family. “RBG” also devoted a lot of time to Ginsburg’s legacy in the legal profession, by giving history lessons about many landmark court decisions that resulted from her work.
“Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” doesn’t go into any real depth over about his decisions while serving on the U.S. Supreme Court, but he does address why he’s known for not asking a lot of questions when cases are argued before the Supreme Court. He explains that oral and written arguments should have all the information he needs to make a decision. The documentary also points out that he has written more opinions on cases than any of the current U.S. Supreme Court Justices.
It isn’t until the near the end of “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” that the documentary breaks from the one-on-one interview format and shows new footage of Thomas outside of the interview room. In one scene, he’s talking with and joking around with some of his clerks, and it shows a more light-hearted, humorous side to him. Ginni comments in an interview that her husband is not an Ivy League snob, since he goes out of his way to hire clerks who aren’t from the Ivy League.
At the end of the film, Clarence Thomas also mentions that he and Ginni love to travel by RV around the United States, to under-the-radar places where they can connect with everyday people. (There are brief photo flashes of the couple on these trips.) That’s the kind of documentary video footage a lot of people might want to see, but Clarence and Ginni Thomas seem to be too private for that kind of filmmaking.
“Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” probably won’t change a lot of people’s minds about Clarence Thomas if they are vehemently for or against him. But for people who can be more objective and want to look at both sides of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy, this documentary can be viewed in addition to “Anita Hill: Speaking Truth to Power” to get these different perspectives, so people can make up their own minds.
Manifold Productions released “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” in select U.S. cinemas on January 31, 2020.