The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clarence Thomas speaks, but leaves many questions unanswered, in documentary

Clarence Thomas is sworn in to the Supreme Court by Justice Byron R. White, while his wife Virginia, center, Barbara Bush and President George H.W. Bush look on. (Courtesy of Justice Clarence Thomas)
(2 stars)

A new Clarence Thomas documentary opens with a clip from the Supreme Court Justice’s contentious 1991 Senate confirmation hearing, in which we hear Sen. Howell T. Heflin (D-Ala.) refer to Thomas, with understatement, as “somewhat of an enigma.” In the intervening years, Thomas has done little to make himself less of one. He rarely grants interviews, and on the court, he is known for going years without asking a single question during oral arguments.

By that measure, it is welcome to have “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words,” for which Thomas and his wife, Virginia, sat with filmmaker Michael Pack for more than 30 hours of interviews. Structured around this conventional talking-head footage — which covers, in easily digestible if inertly chronological fashion, Thomas’s Georgia childhood, education, first marriage and career — the film reveals much, while at the same time leaving us to wonder much. A lot of this ground has been covered before, in Thomas’s 2007 memoir “My Grandfather’s Son,” from which Thomas occasionally reads aloud.

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One throughline is Thomas’s political evolution, beginning with an abortive stint as a Catholic seminarian — the lone black student — that ended when he withdrew after hearing a racist remark. That was followed by his self-described leftward radicalization, subsequently abandoned, along with his anger, when he became what he calls a “lazy libertarian” at Yale Law School, then a left-leaning registered Democrat and, years later, a reliable member of the conservative wing of the Supreme Court. As common as such transitions may be in the life of any 71-year-old, “Created Equal” doesn’t offer many insights, at least not in a deeply satisfying way, as to how and why he has changed.

As it inevitably must, the film eventually works its way back to the confirmation hearings, during which sometimes-lurid allegations of sexual harassment were made by attorney Anita Hill, who once worked with Thomas. And Thomas again refers to the proceedings as a “high-tech lynching,” orchestrated because he was the “wrong kind of black guy,” as he characterizes his opponents’ views.

This part of the film is the most interesting — and, depending on your predisposition, potentially poignant — segment. But “Created Equal” is, by design, a lopsided affair, with Pack — a conservative filmmaker and former president of the right-leaning think tank the Claremont Institute — clearly sympathetic to Thomas’s self-characterizations. Pack makes no attempt, for example, to present arguments that might counterbalance the claim of a lynching, however metaphorical. The comparison is drawn, somewhat absurdly, between Thomas’s treatment and the treatment of Tom Robinson, the character falsely accused — and convicted — of rape in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

There is no mention, for instance, of other women who might have corroborated Hill’s claims.

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But “Created Equal” isn’t that kind of documentary. Rather, it’s meant as an opportunity for Thomas to have his full say, without challenge. At one point, he talks about how he prefers to vacation in RV parks instead of, say, resorts. He explains that he prefers the company of what he calls “regular” people, leading one to wonder, among many other questions left unasked and unanswered: Does that mean that travelers who stay in hotels are, despite the film’s title, less “regular” than others?

PG-13. At AMC’s Georgetown 14. Contains mature thematic elements, including some sexual references. 116 minutes.