Can cinema break us out of our silos?

That question occurred to me recently when I watched “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words,” a new documentary about the notoriously taciturn Supreme Court justice who, over the course of nearly three decades on the bench, has rarely asked a question during oral arguments. As “Created Equal” demonstrates, when Thomas decides to talk, he’s undeniably compelling. In the film, the 71-year-old judge recalls his early youth in Pin Point, Ga., and the harsh life lessons he received at the hands of his uncompromising grandfather in Savannah. He revisits the betrayal he felt at the bigotry of his fellow Catholics during a brief stint in the seminary before moving on to Holy Cross and Yale Law School. By the time “Created Equal” gets to Thomas’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court in 1991 — when he was accused of sexual harassment by law professor Anita Hill — Thomas has completed a startling transformation. Having become a revolutionary black nationalist in college, he identified as a Democrat and “lazy libertarian” before becoming a strict conservative. Today, he is still wounded and enraged by American racism, even though he sees the standard liberal response to it as patronizing and hypocritical.

Let it be noted: I am not the core audience for “Created Equal.” I abhor many of Thomas’s opinions on the court, particularly regarding reproductive rights, gun control, voting access and campaign finance. I was angry when it was revealed that the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee led by Joe Biden in 1991 chose not to hear public testimony from witnesses who might have corroborated Hill’s story. I’ve been dubious of Thomas’s silence during Supreme Court proceedings, chalking it up to disinterest, insecurity or petulance. Like my colleague Michael O’Sullivan, who reviewed “Created Equal,” I wish the film had probed more deeply into the particulars of his intellectual evolution and challenged the most self-justifying aspects of his narrative. But, even with those misgivings, I enjoyed “Created Equal,” and not only because of the “Garbo talks!” novelty of hearing the Quiet Justice speak (the two-hour film was culled from more than 30 hours of interviews). Thomas’s life story is riveting, from its roots in the Gullah culture of coastal Georgia to intergenerational psychodrama worthy of the ancient Greeks. Although I hadn’t changed my views of Thomas’s opinions by the time the movie ended, I felt I at least understood the man and his contradictions far better than when it began. And that made encountering “Created Equal” on its own terms a worthwhile, even rewarding exercise. I thought back to “RBG,” the adoring documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that became the hit of the summer in 2018, and 2014’s “Anita,” about Hill’s career-long fight for gender equity. If I could accept those uncritical films of two women I already admired, why shouldn’t I be able to find value in a similarly one-sided portrait of someone with whom I vehemently disagree?

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the star of her own adoring 2018 documentary. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the star of her own adoring 2018 documentary. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Make no mistake: “Created Equal” is a one-sided portrait. The film’s director, Michael Pack, is a longtime conservative filmmaker, whose documentaries include “Hollywood vs. Religion” and “Inside the Republican Revolution,” and who led the right-leaning think tank the Claremont Institute for two years. We first met in 2000 when he brought his film “The Fall of Newt Gingrich” to the Maryland Film Festival; in 2017, we engaged in a public conversation at AFI Docs, discussing ideological diversity within the nonfiction filmmaking community. I have remained friendly with Michael and his wife, Gina Cappo Pack (executive producer of “Created Equal”), ever since. Even without knowing the Packs, I would consider “Created Equal” a success, starting with the subtitle. From the outset, viewers are put on notice that the story they’re about to hear is solely from Thomas’s point of view (the only other voice in the film belongs to Thomas’s wife, Virginia). And that makes a difference. Rather than purport to be an objective, journalistic report, “Created Equal” makes it clear that this will be a highly sympathetic account of its subject — a safe space in documentary form. Thus situated, I was able to watch with the appropriate filter, appreciating the fascinating personal and social history that weaves through Thomas’s biography while taking issue with his most frustrating, even infuriating pronouncements. It’s just this kind of compartmentalization — figuring out what you accept, reject, are surprised by or simply want to file away for further study — that defines critical thinking, a skill that has become virtually extinct in a hyper-polarized culture. Can cinema be a depolarizing force? Back when movies were projected in dark rooms full of strangers, we lowered our defenses to enter a kind of shared dream state. That communal experience might be increasingly obsolete, but even taking in Thomas’s story on a laptop forged a far more powerful connection than would have been created by the intellectual exercise of reading his memoir, or an op-ed. You can toss a book across the room, or click away from an article you don’t like; movies are different, in that they operate both as a delivery system for information and as an emotional medium. Even as I mentally picked apart the film’s most objectionable assertions, the ways Pack used Thomas’s voice and the imagery from his past forced me to sit with the man and his story, and to contend with the paradoxical feelings — compassion, admiration, surprise, deep skepticism — that surfaced as a result. I discovered that even passionate disagreement can coexist with edification, however uncomfortably. Of course, film’s ability to short-circuit rationality is precisely what makes it such a potent — and potentially dangerous — medium. But it’s also what makes film an ideal venue for encountering ideas and experiences diametrically opposed to our own. That doesn’t mean that the act of watching a movie is equal to tacit agreement or that buying a ticket confers endorsement. But it does mean entering a good-faith contract between filmmakers, who must be as scrupulously transparent as possible, and audiences, who vow to remain open-minded and critically engaged. When those conditions are met, cinema gives us the best chance possible to lay down our arms, open our minds, and — just maybe — shut up and listen.