When Michael Pack heard that Clarence Thomas was tired of his narrative “being told by his enemies,” the producer decided to make a documentary about him. In Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, Pack let our nation’s most enigmatic justice speak for himself.
The two-hour film lets Thomas and his wife Virginia talk about everything from Thomas’s childhood to his political evolution and tenure at the Supreme Court. Over a six-month period, Thomas granted the filmmaker 30 hours of interviews.
Dallas philanthropist Harlan Crow, who donated a few hundred thousand dollars to the project, says letting Thomas tell his own story was the right approach. “That was an unusual idea,” he says, which produced a “terrific” story.
Thomas tells his tale chronologically, beginning with his birth in Pin Point, Georgia, in 1948, years before the South was desegregated. He grew up with two siblings and a single mother, eventually going to live with his grandparents when he was seven. Given the way he talks about his grandfather it’s crystal clear why he titled his 2007 memoir (from which he reads throughout the documentary) My Grandfather’s Son. His grandfather taught him faith, a work ethic, and tough love.
Thomas’s politics, however, were in deep flux for many years. He describes how he evolved from an aspiring priest, to a Marxist and supporter of the Black Panthers, to a “lazy libertarian” at Yale. After he graduated with his law degree he accepted a job offer from Missouri Attorney General John Danforth with mixed feelings. It was a good position, but “the idea of working for a Republican was repulsive at best. I was a registered Democrat, I was left-wing, and as nice as he was, he was still a Republican.”
Thomas went on to work at Monsanto, where he chafed at the “golden handcuffs” of a “comfortable but unfulfilling life.” So in 1979, he returned to work for now-Senator John Danforth as a legislative aide. The next fall, he voted for Ronald Reagan. “I was distressed by the Democratic Party’s promises to legislate the problems of blacks out of existence,” Thomas says. Soon afterward, he was attacked in a newspaper article for voting Republican as a black man.
From then on, Thomas pivots his story to the tumult that has been his public life. The biggest draw of Created Equal is Thomas’s responses to the attacks that have dogged him for years, especially concerning his confirmation hearing. “One of the things you do in hearings,” Thomas quips, “is you have to sit there and look attentively at people you know have no idea what they’re talking about.”
The documentary, now in theaters, will air on PBS in May. Pack, who directed, wrote, and produced the documentary, has also created a dozen other documentaries that aired on public television. “I believe conservatives should try harder to get their films broadcast on PBS,” he says. “Millions of people see it.”
Tom Klingenstein, another donor to the film, says he hasn’t typically invested in documentaries, but he couldn’t pass up Created Equal. “I think he has a great story.” Klingenstein was impressed by the film’s focus on Thomas’s grandfather. “Without the grandfather, as I understand the story, Thomas wouldn’t be where he is. It speaks to the importance of parenting.”
Pack notes that philanthropy plays an important role in the production of documentary films, which generally cost from several hundred thousand to a few million dollars. Private foundation funding is especially crucial for projects heading to public television. He hopes his film will encourage more givers to invest in films.
Documentaries also need help after production is completed. Films can’t change the world unless they get viewed. Kim Dennis, president of the Searle Freedom Trust, says her group contributed $200,000 to help distribute and advertise Created Equal. “We were able to see a rough cut of the film, and knew how good it was, so we were delighted to be able to help them out with a grant for marketing,” she says.
Thanks to a handful of givers, our Supreme Court’s longest-tenured sitting Justice is speaking out in a way he never has before. Coming to a theater and PBS station near you.