To many, he is an enigma. Or that controversial 1990s political/judicial figure who faded into a quiet corner of the Supreme Court of the United States. RBG gets all the press. Clarence Thomas does not. Rarely interviewed, rarely in front of a camera.
If political junkies, students of history, the African American community and others want to delve deep into the psyche of the one black SCOTUS judge, they will have to do their own research. What’s on view here is a one-sided scrapbook, with no dissenting points of view. No friends, colleagues or rivals to pose a counterpoint—the kind of good friction that makes a documentary a documentary, and not a promo reel.
However, this non-fiction film does shed light on certain historical aspects of Thomas’ life. Born in the very segregated Pin Point, Georgia in 1948, He was raised initially by a single mother in abject poverty with virtually no interaction with his father. His brother and he were taken in by his middle-class maternal grandparents. A stern granddad became his father figure, applying strict discipline and telling his two young grandsons that the door swings in and out. They came in with it, and will go out with it if they don’t behave.
Thomas was sent to a Catholic elementary school. His teenage years were spent in an all-white, all-male Catholic seminary, where he was often the target of racial taunts, especially during the tumultuous civil rights movement. Somehow he attended the College of the Holy Cross, a private Jesuit school in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1968 even though his grandfather refused to pay for college. He fell in with some black radical students, embraced the Black Panther movement and was disowned by his grandfather for being a revolutionary. Thomas eventually graduated from Yale Law School, and no family members came to his graduation. That affected him greatly.
Fast forward to 1980, and something changed his social opinions, politics and viewpoint on the fight for equality. This is where the footage feels like it skates over a crucial part of his life. What makes a black man go from a poor kid, to a bright student, a militant, a counterculture “lazy Libertarian,” to a Republican? It’s like he walked through a door, left his blackness outside and embraced a party that caters to whites with no reasonable explanation (only 8% of black voters identify in some way with the Republican Party). How did this conversion occur? What was the trigger?
“In the fall of 1980, I had decided to vote for Ronald Reagan. It was a giant step for a black man. Then license is given to others, to attack you in whatever way they want to. You’re not really black because you’re not doing what you expect black people to do. You weren’t supposed to oppose busing; you weren’t supposed to oppose welfare.”
Director/writer Michael Pack’s inability to ask a tough question becomes egregious here. Thomas is known as the Supreme Court judge who consistently votes against measures that will even the playing field for African Americans. Affirmative action, college admissions, quotas –his opinions are notoriously against them. Unlike his predecessor Thurgood Marshall, who the black community could look to as someone who understood their challenges, Thomas has been resolutely the opposite. Why?
As Thomas sits in a dark room recollecting, cinematographer James Callanan shoots him from unflattering angles, with horrendous lighting that makes him look like he’s in a low-budget sci-fi movie. Photos and footage from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s detail poverty in the south and black life under the oppression of Jim Crow laws. They also reveal a young black man who had more opportunities than other poor kids in his neighborhood, and took them.
Thomas attended Yale Law school at the time when its policies, involving race-conscious admissions programs embracing diversity, opened the doors for people like him. Yet he dissented from the court’s landmark 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the use of race as a factor in state university admissions decisions. It’s that hypocrisy that made him an outcast in the African American community, and particularly to the black intelligentsia. A cartoon of Thomas as a lawn jockey on the cover of the very edgy black newsmagazine Emerge is just one of the examples of biting political satire that has followed his career.
In the footage, Thomas firmly believes that attacks on him are because he is a free thinker. Not because of his deeds. After his very public and stormy confirmation as a Supreme Court Judge, in which he out-maneuvered Democrats like Joe Biden by using the term “high tech lynching,” and swayed public opinion in his favor, he equated white liberals as oppressors:
“I felt as though in my life, I had been looking at the wrong people, as the people who would be problematic toward me … Ultimately the biggest impediment, was the modern day liberal.”
There’s scant mention of his first wife, Kathy Ambush or son Jamal, both African Americans. His white wife Virginia gets plenty of airtime, and is the only other interviewee in this 1h 56min promo reel. The two live in a protective bubble, able to see what goes on in society, but completely sheltered. If they didn’t, and he let the outside world in, he might hear and absorb constructive criticism that could lead to deep self-examination. The kind of introspection that challenges people to grow. The film’s basic, insular format just fortifies his cocoon. No rivals. No other judges. No historians. No other family members. Nothing.
How out of touch is Clarence Thomas, especially concerning the African American community? A voiceover states that Thomas doesn’t recruit interns from Ivy League schools, and prefers students from less prestigious institutions. Like he’s trying to get down with the real folk. The camera shoots a scene of him in his judge’s chambers with a flock of new interns. The gut check is that they are all white. All blond! And this is his norm. What happened to his blackness? Sense of community?
A two-hour unperceptive documentary leaves the quietest man on the Supreme Court no less an enigma than before the opening credits rolled. Thomas: “I’m different than what people paint me to be.” How would anybody know?