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Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words

by Philip Martin | February 21, 2020 at 1:44 a.m.
Clarence Thomas and Virginia Lamp on their wedding day in 1987.

Clarence Thomas is a famous sphinx, a Supreme Court justice who typically sits silently through oral arguments, who has carefully selected his audiences since his infamous 1991 confirmation hearings during which his former colleague Anita Hill accused him of making unwelcome sexual comments to her when the two worked together at the Department of Education.

In light of his silence and the relatively few opinions Thomas has written during his time on the Court, there might be a tendency to cast him as something of a conservative mascot, a predictable vote for the Red Team.

Created Equal:

Clarence Thomas in His Own Words

86 Cast: documentary, with Clarence Thomas, Virginia Thomas

Director: Michael Pack

Rating: PG-13, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Whatever your political leanings, you might come into a documentary about Thomas thinking of him as having been deeply wounded by what he called his "electronic lynching"; you might sense in his long silence protest or petulance. You might, as my wife has been known to observe, feel like sometimes quiet people simply have little to say -- remaining mute might signal mysteriousness and depth where none exists.

Whether you might think him an intellectual lightweight, a true believer, a good soldier, a hero or a fool, it's likely to be revised after watching Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.

That's not to say that the film by conservative filmmaker Michael Pack will make you change your mind about Thomas' politics or re-evaluate your position vis-à-vis l'affaire Anita Hill. But what it will show you is a flesh-and-blood Thomas, with a complicated history and a complex psychology -- a thinking person, both engaging and thoughtful. Clarence Thomas presents as a normal, thoroughly decent dude.

The whole idea of the movie is to show Thomas as an avuncular gentleman of high principles and ideals. Just like the whole purpose of the 2018 documentary RBG is to present Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a kind of left-progressive superhero. There's no pretense otherwise, and though I guess you could call this agitprop, it's a very honest kind of agitprop.

It's a chance for Thomas to tell his story his way, to explain why he is who he is and why he does what he does. Some tough questions about the nominations come up, and you may not believe he's telling the entire truth. But you might grant that he's telling his truth -- a truth he no doubt believes.

Actors say that every villain is misunderstood. Certainly, Thomas, who admits his mantra in law school was "leave me alone," must feel that he's been misjudged by enemies and allies. And he's probably right about that; maybe you can believe Anita Hill and still grant that the man has had quite the journey.

It started in south Georgia, in the rural community of Pin Point, where he was born into a penniless family descended from West Indians (they are called Geechee in Georgia; Gullah in South Carolina).

He says he never really knew his father, but that his early years of rural poverty were "very livable" compared to the grinding racism that went along with being black and poor in Savannah in the mid-1950s. He says he was a feral kid, wild on the street when he was 6 years old; the next year, he was taken in hand by a stern Catholic grandfather who welcomed Thomas and his younger brother into his house by telling them "the damn vacation is over."

It was his "rules and regulations," and he left the boys no doubt they were "there by his grace." The same door that opened for them could be shut with them on the other side.

But they felt they had been delivered -- Grandfather's house had a bathtub and a flush toilet, and Thomas' grandmother was as kind as he was strict.

So Thomas began his education in segregated Catholic schools under the tutelage of fierce Irish nuns. "They didn't much like [segregation]," he says. "They were always on our side."

When he was a high school sophomore, Thomas entered St. John Vianney's Minor Seminary and went on to Conception Seminary College in Missouri to study for the priesthood. He flourished there under the guidance of a priest who impressed upon the need for speaking standard English. (Thomas' wife, Virginia, the only other interviewee in the film, says that when she visited her husband's extended family in Pin Hook she couldn't understand their Geechee patois -- she just smiled and nodded a lot.)

Thomas understood the need to perform better academically than his white peers. He didn't want to leave anyone any reason other than race to try to discredit him.

But after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. when he was 16, Thomas was upset by comments made by his fellow seminarians. So he quit. And when he went back to his grandfather's house he was turned away -- as the old man said he would be. He lived with his mother for a while before being accepted to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and costumed himself as a black radical. From there, he went on to Yale Law School, where he describes himself as adopting a "lazy libertarian" philosophy.

His eventual conversion to natural law conservative occupies the second half of the film, and while it's nowhere near as compelling as the first half, it's never insulting to one's intelligence.

Apparently, it was precipitated by the realization that his radical play-acting was ridiculous and the fact that the schools in South Boston to which black kids from Roxbury were being forcibly bused to achieve integration were just as shabby as the ones in their neighborhood.

And yes, he's thought about Ayn Rand; though he's insulted that anyone would think that he might have had an offhand conversation about Roe v. Wade.

And the whole Anita Hill debacle was a liberal smear campaign.

OK, let Thomas have his say. It's only fair.

He doesn't ask questions during oral arguments because he doesn't believe that justices should ask questions. He thinks lawyers should make arguments, and judges should decide cases.

He has a simple solution to America's seemingly intractable problem of racism: Cut it out. Treat everybody the same. And quit complaining, because if he could make it, coming from where he came from, anyone should be able to.

But that ignores what the movie has just demonstrated: Clarence Thomas is a person of uncommon ability; a super-competent man of high intellect and -- who would have thought it -- genuine charisma. He is decidedly not just anyone.

Future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his younger brother Myers about the time they were were taken to live with his maternal grandparents in Savannah, Georgia. Thomas was 7 years old at the time.

MovieStyle on 02/21/2020

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