One thing I will say about "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” is that it’s perfectly titled. There is almost nothing in this two-hour production that isn’t in the words of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
His wife, Virginia Thomas, gets a bit of screen time, but she’s totally in sync with her husband’s version of history and the events in his life. If you want a 2-hour production that feels more like hagiography than what I think of as a documentary with balancing voices, then “Created Equal” is for you. The question is whether such a one-sided, “in his own words” version of the life of a figure as controversial as Thomas is what public television should be offering in prime time. The answer to that question goes straight to the heart of our culture wars. Clarence Thomas and Michael Pack, the film’s director and producer, bring plenty of culture war baggage with them to the table.
Thomas, generally considered the most conservative member of the court, will forever be linked in the public mind to the charges of sexual harassment leveled against him by Anita Hill during his confirmation hearings to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. During the hearings, Thomas denounced them as “a circus ... a national disgrace ... a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”
As for Pack, he has become a culture wars hot potato since he was nominated to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees such operations as Voice of America. Some analysts see his nomination as part of an effort by President Trump to create a global right-wing media messaging machine much as he has tried to do in the U.S. with Fox News, Breitbart News Network, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, One America News Network and other platforms.
As Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee worked to block his nomination, Trump himself intervened to get Pack, who has made two films with former Trump aide and Breitbart editor Steve Bannon, confirmed by the Senate.
“If you hear what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting," Trump said in April, voicing his anger about VOA coverage of China’s role in the pandemic and the Senate’s failure to confirm Pack. “The things they say are disgusting toward our country. And Michael Pack would get in and do a great job, but he’s been waiting for two years. Can’t get him approved.”
A planned committee vote on Pack’s nomination was postponed Thursday. And later in the day, Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and ranking member on the committee, said the office of the attorney general for the District of Columbia had informed the panel that it was investigating allegations that Pack funneled $1.6 million in funds from a nonprofit group he runs to his for-profit film company. The story was first reported in The Washington Post.
Pack declined to comment when I asked about his nomination. But that’s what I mean about bringing culture war issues with him just like the subject of his film.
The format of “Created Equal” is Thomas sitting at a table talking to an off-camera interviewer, Pack. Thomas is thus literally narrating his life story for this PBS offering with occasional prompts and queries from Pack. Thomas previously wrote about his life story in his 2007 memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son."
“Clarence Thomas’ story is a classic American Horatio Alger story, coming from dire poverty in the segregated South to the highest court in the land," Pack said.
“It is a remarkable journey with him coming from further behind than almost any American political figure, especially when you take into account the segregation and racism he suffered," the filmmaker continued. "His intellectual journey is also remarkable ... from being raised by his grandfather and Irish nuns with traditional hard work values, to rejecting those values and then finally coming back to them later in his life.”
The narrative is a powerful one, and Pack uses it skillfully to engage and even move the viewer emotionally as he chronicles Thomas’ climb from Pin Point, Georgia, to Yale University and then the highest ranks of American conservative politics.
I was OK with the education-of-a-young-man narrative that drove the film from Thomas’ childhood to Catholic school and then the seminary and college life. It’s when Thomas enters the realm of American politics as President Ronald Reagan’s chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1982 and then the Supreme Court nominee of President George H.W. Bush that the one-sided, in-his-own-words approach became seriously problematic to me.
“I originally thought I would make more of a traditional documentary and interview a wide range of people on all sides of all these issues. But it would take a lot of people on all sides to deal with the many things that come up from affirmative action and busing to the Anita Hill charges themselves. And I thought I would lose Clarence Thomas’ voice," Pack said of his structural and editorial choices.
“So, I thought it was better to have him tell his story," the filmmaker added. "And it’s ‘Clarence Thomas in his own words,’ so we don’t hide that fact. It’s not pretended to be the objective truth about his life. It’s his subjective truth. And I think because we’ve made essentially that deal with the audience and we stick to that deal, the film has integrity.”
Integrity is not a word I would use in connection with this film. I think some of its messages are not just one-sided; they are dangerous in the way they add to the deep political divide plaguing this nation.
In talking about his Senate confirmation hearings, Thomas says in the film, “Most of my opponents on the Judiciary Committee cared about only one thing: how would I rule on abortion rights. You really didn’t matter. And your life didn’t matter. What mattered is what they wanted. And what they wanted was this particular issue.”
As Thomas continues that thought, the camera starts a slow pan down the faces of the committee members: Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the committee chair, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (Democrat, Massachusetts), who was seated next to Biden, and straight down the committee, of white, male Democrats.
“I felt as though in my life I had been looking at the wrong people as to the people who would be problematic to me," Thomas says. "We were told, ‘Oh, it’s going to be the bigot in the pickup truck. It’s going to be the Klansman. It’s going to be the rural sheriff.' And I’m not saying there weren’t some of those who were bad. But it turned out through all of that, ultimately the biggest impediment was the modern day liberal, that they were the ones who discount all those things, because they have one issue or they have the power to caricature you.”
The segment ends with the camera focused on Biden as he gavels the session to a close.
If you don’t think there is a political, culture wars component to such moments in the film, consider this exchange between Fox News host Laura Ingraham and Pack in a video from her show that posted Tuesday on the Fox News website.
After showing a clip from the film of Thomas warning those who issue accusations or back those who would accuse people like him that their time in the “Tower of London will come," Ingraham says, “Michael, how ironic that Biden is now on the other side of this one.”
“Indeed, he’s got his own Anita Hill,” Pack says referencing Tara Reade, who has accused Biden of sexually assaulting her in 1993 when she was a staff assistant in his Senate office.
I am not surprised that Ingraham says she loves “Created Equal” and will be supporting it in social media in coming days. That’s the way it works in the right-wing messaging machine.
What surprises me is that PBS is scheduled to air this film Monday, and in prime time no less. That’s surprising and tremendously disappointing as to the state of public television in the age of Donald Trump.
“Created Equal” is scheduled to air at 9:30 p.m. Monday on MPT and 9 p.m. Monday on WETA.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.