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It turns out that Clarence Thomas can speak after all.
The famously reticent Supreme Court justice opens up big time in the new documentary by Michael Pack, which will receive a theatrical release before airing on PBS this spring. The result of some 30 hours of interviews conducted by the filmmaker with Thomas and his wife, Ginny, Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words lives up to its title. Composed nearly entirely of its principal subject recounting his life story directly to the camera, the film will inevitably thrill conservatives while driving liberals up the wall. If it were paired on a double bill with RBG, you could imagine loud arguments breaking out at the theater.
RELEASE DATE Jan 31, 2020
If you’re wondering why Thomas is finally breaking his vow of silence, it may be due to the fact that he felt comfortable cooperating with Pack, a conservative filmmaker who’s collaborated with Steve Bannon and was nominated by President Trump for the position of chief executive officer of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. So it’s not like he was walking into the lion’s den.
Covering much of the biographical material contained in his 2007 memoir My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas describes his impoverished upbringing in rural Georgia (cue Louis Armstrong singing “Moon River,” composed by Savannah’s own Johnny Mercer). Raised largely by his grandparents, Thomas entered a seminary and considered becoming a priest, only to abandon the idea when a white fellow student made an offensive remark expressing happiness at Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
That ultra-sensitivity and tendency toward whiplash ideological changes becomes highly apparent through the course of the film. Thomas became radicalized for a while, participating in anti-Vietnam War rallies and chanting about freeing Angela Davis. Then, after attending Holy Cross College and Yale Law School, he became, as he describes himself, a “lazy libertarian.” (Cue the inevitable clip from the film version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead).
The only job offer he received after graduating came from Jack Danforth, then Missouri’s Attorney General, but Thomas says he hated the idea of working for a Republican. Nonetheless, he became the state’s Assistant Attorney General, only to leave the position shortly afterward and work as a corporate lawyer for Monsanto. He later moved to Washington and became a legislative aide for Danforth, who had been elected senator. By then, Thomas had fully embraced the Republican agenda, voting for Reagan in 1980 because of his desire to see an end to the “social engineering of the ’60s and ’70s.”
His rise after that was swift. When Justice Thurgood Marshall retired, George Bush nominated him to fill the seat and, well, you know the rest. What comes through loud and clear during the documentary is that Thomas has lost none of the anger and bitterness he displayed during that time. “This is about the wrong kind of black guy, he has to be destroyed,” he says about those who opposed his nomination, playing the same card as when he famously testified that his hearing represented a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” He bitterly compares himself to the character of Joseph K in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, as the film dutifully provides a clip of Anthony Perkins emoting in the film version. When asked if he watched Anita Hill’s testimony, he makes a disgusted face and says, “Oh, God, no!” By the time he likens himself to Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird (you guessed it, another clip), you start to wonder if there isn’t any martyr he doesn’t identify with. At least he eventually made peace with his travails. When asked how he felt when he was finally confirmed, Thomas sarcastically replies, “Whoop-de-damn-do.”
Responding to a question about his famous unwillingness to engage with lawyers making arguments before the Supreme Court, Thomas explains, “The referee in the game should not be a participant in the game.” Sounds reasonable enough, except it flies in the face of centuries of tradition at the highest court in the land.
Periodically throughout the film, his spouse, whom he lovingly describes as “a gift from God,” weighs in on various topics. Her personal observations add little of substance to the proceedings, but her unwavering support for her husband comes through loud and clear.
A revealing moment comes when Thomas waxes poetic about driving his motor home through Middle America — or “real America,” as he calls it — and hanging out with “regular people” in Walmart parking lots. There’s no danger of running into liberal elites there.
A scene late in the film, showing him chatting and laughing with his personally selected law clerks, illustrates that he certainly lives up to his long-expressed position against affirmative action. The group doesn’t include a single person of color.
Despite its obvious lack of objectivity, Clarence Thomas: In His Own Words proves an undeniably important historical document, if only for the rare opportunity it provides to hear from its subject directly. Unfortunately, the unintentional portrait it paints is hardly a flattering one, although obviously many will disagree.
Production: Manifold Productions
Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment
Director/screenwriter/producer: Michael Pack
Executive producer: Gina Cappo Pack
Director of photography: James Callanan
Editor: Faith Jones
Composer: Charlie Barnett
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