If you watch “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” looking for a clue as to Thomas’ inner workings, a key to who Clarence Thomas really is, then you’ll have to wait a while before it arrives. But it does. The reason it takes so long is that Thomas, dressed in a red tie, light shirt, and blue jacket (yes, his entire outfit is color-coordinated to the American flag), his graying head looking impressive and nearly statue-ready as he gazes into the camera, presents himself as a regular guy, affably growly and folksy in a casual straight-shooter way. And while I have no doubt that’s an honest aspect of who he is, it’s also a shrewdly orchestrated tactic, a way of saying: Don’t try to look for my demons — you won’t find them.
The revealing moment comes when Thomas recalls the 1991 Senate hearings in which he was grilled on national television as part of the Supreme Court confirmation process. Does he go back and talk about Anita Hill? Yes, he does (I’ll get to that shortly), but that isn’t the revealing part. Discussing Anita Hill, Thomas reveals next to nothing. His métier now is exactly what it was then: Deny, deny, deny.
Thomas tips his hand, though, when he recalls the moment that a senator asked if he’d ever had a private conversation about Roe v. Wade. At the time, he said no — and now, 30 years later, that “no” has just gotten louder. In hindsight, he’s incredulous that anyone would simply presume that he’d ever had a private discussion about Roe v. Wade. He’s almost proud of how wrong they were to think so.
In a Senate hearing, when you say that you’ve never had that kind of conversation, it’s in all likelihood political — a way, in this case, of keeping your beliefs about abortion ambiguous and close to the vest. A way of keeping them officially off the table. In “Created Equal,” however, Thomas is being sincere. He has always maintained that he finds it insulting — and racist — that people would expect an African-American citizen like himself to conform to a prescribed liberal ideology. And in the same vein, he thinks it’s ridiculous that a Senate questioner expected him to say that he’d ever spent two minutes sitting around talking about Roe v. Wade.
But talk about an argument that backfires! I’m not a federal judge (and the last time I checked, I’ve never tried to become a Supreme Court justice), but I’ve had many conversations in my life about Roe v. Wade. Why wouldn’t I? I’m an ordinary politically inclined American. I mean, how could you not talk about it — ever? Abortion rights, no matter where you happen to stand on them, are a defining issue of our world. And the fact that Clarence Thomas was up for the role of Supreme Court justice, and that he still views it as A-okay to say that he’d never had a single discussion about Roe v. Wade, shows you where he’s coming from. He has opinions and convictions. But he is, in a word, incurious. He’s a go-along-to-get-along kind of guy, a man who worked hard and achieved something and enjoyed a steady rise without ever being driven to explore things. He was a bureaucrat. Which is fine; plenty of people are.
But not the people we expect to be on the Supreme Court.
“Created Equal” is structured as a monologue of self-justification, a two-hour infomercial for the decency, the competence, and the conservative role-model aspirationalism of Clarence Thomas. Since he followed the 1991 Senate hearings, even in victory, by going off and licking his wounds, maintaining a public persona that was studiously recessive, there’s a certain interest in “hanging out” with Thomas and taking in his cultivated self-presentation. The movie, in its public-relations heart, is right-wing boilerplate (though it’s mild next to the all-in-for-Trump documentary screeds of Dinesh D’Souza), and there are worse ways to get to know someone like Thomas than to watch him deliver what is basically the visual version of an I-did-it-my-way audiobook memoir, with lots of news clips and photographs to illustrate his words.
The first half of the movie draws you in, because it’s basically the story of how Thomas, born in 1948 in the rural community of Pin Point, Georgia, was raised in a penniless family who spoke the creole language of Gullah, and of how he pulled himself up by his bootstraps. After a fire left the family homeless, he and his brother went off to Savannah to live with their grandfather, an illiterate but sternly disciplined taskmaster who gave Thomas his backbone of self-reliance. He entered Conception Seminary College when he was 16, and he loved it — but in a story Thomas has often told, he left the seminary after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. when he overheard a fellow student make an ugly remark about King.
That’s a telling anecdote, but there’s a reason Thomas showcases it the way he does. It’s his one official grand statement of racial outrage. In “Created Equal,” he talks for two hours but says next to nothing about his feelings on the Civil Rights movement, or on what it was like to be raised in the Jim Crow South. As a student at Holy Cross, the Jesuit liberal arts college near Boston, he joined a crew of black “revolutionaries” and dressed the part in Army fatigues, but he now mocks that stage of his development, cutting right to his conservative awakening, which coalesced around the issue of busing. Thomas thought it was nuts to bus black kids from Roxbury to schools in South Boston that were every bit as bad as the ones they were already attending. And maybe he was right.
Thomas, using busing and welfare as his example, decries the liberal dream as a series of idealistic engineering projects that human beings were then wedged into. There may be aspects of truth to that critique, but liberalism was also rolling up its sleeves to grapple with the agony of injustice. The philosophy that Thomas evolved had a connect-the-dots perfection to it: Treat everyone equal! Period! How easy! It certainly sounds good on paper, yet you want to ask: Couldn’t one use the same logic that rejects affirmative action programs to reject anti-discrimination law? Thomas projects out from his own example: He came from nothing and made something of himself, so why can’t everyone else? But he never stops to consider that he was, in fact, an unusually gifted man. His aw-shucks manner makes him likably unpretentious, but where’s his empathy for all the people who weren’t as talented or lucky?
In “Created Equal,” Thomas continues to treat Anita Hill’s testimony against him as part of a liberal smear campaign — and, therefore, as a lie. He compares himself to Tom Robinson, the railroaded black man in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” viewing himself as a pure victim. Thomas’ wife, Virginia Lamp, who sat by his side at the hearings (and is interviewed in the film), stands by him today. But more than two years into the #MeToo revolution, the meaning of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill Senate testimony stands clearer than ever. It was the first time in America that a public accusation of sexual harassment shook the earth. The meaning of those hearings transcends the fight over whether one more conservative justice got to be added to the Supreme Court.
Thomas now admits that he refused to withdraw his nomination less out of a desire to serve on the Supreme Court than because caving in would have been death to him. “I’ve never cried uncle,” he says, “whether I wanted to be on the Supreme Court or not.” It’s an honest confession, but a little like the Roe v. Wade thing: Where was his intellectual and moral desire to serve on the court? By then, he’d been a federal judge for just 16 months, and he admits that he wasn’t drawn to that job either; but he found that he liked the work.
Thomas also explains why, once he had ascended to the high court, he went through a period where, famously, he didn’t ask a single question at a public hearing for more than 10 years. His rationalization (“The referee in the game should not be a participant in the game”) is, more or less, nonsense. But his silence spoke volumes. It was his passive-aggressive way of turning inward, of treating an appointment he didn’t truly want with anger — of coasting as a form of rebellion. It was his way of pretending to be his own man, even as he continued to play the hallowed conservative role of good soldier.