Documentary Film Review: “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas In His Own Words’”

The film “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas In His Own Words’ is an excellent documentary, the story of the senior justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. 
Roughly the first half of production focuses on his inspiring life story, as first detailed in his stellar autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son.” 

He passed impoverished but happy days of youth in the rural community of Pin Point, where many of the people in his family primarily spoke a variant of the African dialect of the Gullah people. His father disappeared when he was two, leaving his mother, Leola, to care for an older sister, Clarence and his brother Myers.
After the shack where he and Myers lived with their mother burned to the ground, the family moved to Savannah. His mom could not provide adequately for the two boys. 

They then went to live with their grandparents. 
Thomas recalls the change of address was like entering another world. In a fine working-class home in a good (albeit racially segregated) neighborhood, he grew up with his brother under the stern guidance of grandfather Myers, and the nurturing love of grandmother Christine.

The boys attended St. Benedict the Moor Roman Catholic Church and School. His narrative for film emotionally recalls that the mostly-Irish nuns who taught the students were strict but passionately opposed to the racism that prevailed in the South of that time.
The sisters made it clear they were “on our side,” he said, even as one pressed him to work harder on academics. 
While continuing his education for a couple of years at a local Catholic school for blacks, Thomas felt a calling to the priesthood. 
He went to St. John Vianney’s Minor Seminary on the Isle of Hope, becoming an honors student in an environment where he was almost the only black student. Thomas then went for a time to Concepcion Seminary College. 
Using film clips from the era, along with several photographs of his schools and shots of Thomas in his teen years, the story steadily builds emotion in the viewer. 
Then comes a shattering moment when Thomas overhears a classmate saying – in reaction to the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — that he hoped the civil rights leader died.

Angry about the world, and mad at the Church he had considered his home, Thomas left Seminary. He returned to his grandparents’ home, where his grandfather told him to leave, go out, find a job and start a new life. 
Despite tensions in their relationship, candidly chronicled in this superb film, Thomas considers him “the greatest man I have ever known.” 

The film documents ably the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Thomas entered a radical phase while attending Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. The best way to learn that story is to view this movie. Thomas found himself drawn to the hardest elements of the black power movement, actually writing some of the campus manifestos because he was the brother who had a typewriter. 
One night, a lifestyle contrary to his grandfather’s beliefs caught up with him and, alone, he found himself praying in front of the campus chapel. He asked God to take hate out of his heart – and, he relates, the prayer was answered. 

He went on to Yale University Law School.  
Thomas married Kathy Ambush in 1971. Their marriage lasted 13 years, ending with divorce in 1984. They had one son, Jamal. 
After a time in business, he grew restless, slowly changing his views about the world, refashioning beliefs closer to those of his grandfather. 

A Republican senator from Missouri, John (Jack) Danforth, who previously hired him as an assistant attorney general, asked him to come to Washington D.C. to work on his staff.

The Reagan years, as Thomas relates to director Michael Pack, changed his life’s direction.
“In the fall of 1980, I had decided to vote for Ronald Reagan. It was a giant step for a black man, but I was distressed by the Democratic Party’s promises to legislate the problems of blacks out of existence.” 
He continues, ““Reagan, by contrast was promising an end to the indiscriminate social engineering of the 60’s and 70’s. For the first time in my adult life, Washington was full of serious talk about the possibility of getting government off the backs of the poor.” 

Thomas had for some time been undergoing a shift toward libertarian thinking, and came to admire novelist Ayn Rand. The film nicely distills the fundamentals of Rand’s thought, and the future justice’s steady shift toward a more “natural law” based perspective. Subsequently, after leaving Danforth’s staff to join the Reagan administration at the Department of Education, then as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  
Disclosure: It was in this era that Thomas and I became fast friends. On one occasion, we joined two others  to host a Washington, D.C. showing of the film “We, the Living,” drawn from one of Rand’s novels.

As time passed, Virginia, whom he married in 1987, also became my friend.
His hitch at EEOC ended when he went to the court of appeals. And then, in 1991, upon the resignation of Thurgood Marshall, George H.W. Bush, nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

As chronicled in “Created Equal,” the hearings were relatively smooth, at first. A divided Senate Judiciary Committee could not settle on an affirmative recommendation, but his nomination was headed to the floor after a 13-1 vote of the panel.
And then, along came Anita Hill, his former employee who had stayed in touch for years after leaving EEOC. At almost literally the last minute, she alleged he had sexually harassed her. Her tale has been told – repeatedly, sympathetically and for the most part uncritically – in other films and books. 

In this documentary, Thomas’ side is told, including the shock he and his wife, Virginia, felt after details emerged – each and every one of which he categorically and emphatically denied. More disclosure: As chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman, I passionately defended Thomas in personal commentaries and in editorials. 
Despite fierce opposition and a Democratic Senate majority, he was narrowly confirmed. The outcome was driven, at least in part, by the fact that African-Americans were divided over his confirmation, roughly 50-50. The drama of the days after the allegations were made can not be overstated. This movie captures and distills those days brilliantly, including his wife’s reflections.  

This film should be viewed, and his autobiography should be read, all across the land of the free. 

Thomas has now served on the High Court for more than 28 years. He is the author of more opinions than any member of the current Court. His approach to judging cases and controversies builds on not only Founding principles of America, but the legal minds I most admire in the past half century. As a jurist and as a man, he is rooted in the example of his grandfather, and in the text of the U.S. Constitution. In the movie, he explains his lack of verbosity (questioning or pressuring attorneys before the Court) as a jurist. 

Pack skillfully compiled the photo and film clips, the narrative and editing of the story. Clarence Thomas is on screen for much of the story – and responsive to the questioning. 

I dream that somehow, a second film might be made, perhaps exploring his friendships with Ruth Bader Ginsburg (before his ascent to the High Court, they served 19 months together on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of  Columbia) and David Souter (the elder President Bush’s first choice for the Supreme Court). 

The film opened for a limited run in Oklahoma City at the AMC Quail Springs 24 last weekend. Another round of openings for the film come around the country this weekend.
In Oklahoma City, showings are scheduled to continue, appropriately enough, though Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12. The Public Broadcasting System has scheduled a May 2020 broadcast of the movie. 

Note: Pat McGuigan is the author of three books, including ‘Ninth Justice: The Fight for Bork.’ He is also editor of seven books, including ‘Crime and Punishment in Modern America.’ Former editorial page editor at The Oklahoman, he is a member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame. An educator and journalist, he is publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper in Oklahoma City, and founder of, an independent online news service.”