The very private Supreme Court Justice opens up in a very revealing documentary.
While much is known about the historical confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas, and his subsequent professional record on the highest court in the nation, details about the individual himself are relatively scant. Thomas, a notoriously private man, did write a memoir — ”My Grandfather’s Son’’ — but reading about someone, even in autobiographical form, remains a somewhat distancing enterprise. Hearing from the man and listening to his own stories is a different and absorbing exercise.
In ”Created Equal’’ we start out with the early years of his life, growing up in poverty in the South and then getting the chance to move in with his grandparents. Thomas’ grandfather was the formative figure in his life, a stern illiterate man who built himself up to a respectable life in a lower-middle-class setting. This early section is a bit boilerplate in such biographies, but it also serves as illustrating the foundation for the man who endured so much public scorn and rose up despite the social attacks.
He entered college life during the turbulent 1960s and became radicalized for a time, but he also built himself up with a strength of character, eventually earning his way into Yale Law School. He had equal parts drive and some galvanized anger, from the social challenges of growing up black in the 60s. He said of his time at Yale he worked his way through with the mantra of, ”Just – Leave – Me – Alone.’’ That becomes poignant considering the crucible he went through in his SCOTUS confirmation process.
As he worked his way through the strata of Washington D.C. Thomas absorbed his share of racist criticisms — deriving from the liberal left. A black man in government was supposed to be working for all of the expected Democrat causes, but Ronald Reagan’s ascendency to the White House transformed Thomas’ views. As he became more of an independent thinker he was also regarded as a turncoat to his race. He details how a brief exchange with then news reporter Juan Williams was stretched to a full article, one that opened Thomas up to all manner of social criticisms.
This seems to have at least girded him for the confirmation hellstorm he would face. The surprising aspect is that Thomas was truly ambivalent about his Court appointment. The fact that he was not especially driven to become a Justice possibly helped his cause; that the nomination was not an all-consuming goal of his meant he could face the harsh accusations with a sober eye and confront the charges with the rock-ribbed character his grandfather instilled in him.
The footage we are shown revisiting that confirmation process is especially revealing in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh fiasco we just endured. The actions that the Democrats used on Kavanaugh were almost exactly the same as those hurled at Clarence Thomas decades back. There was the focus on ideology over legal precedent, accusatory questions about prospective rulings that are impossible to answer, attacks of a personal nature that were divorced from his professional record, and then the 11th-hour arrival of a female leveling charges of sexual attacks, just on the eve of his confirmation vote. It is so remarkably similar as to appear that a playbook actually exists with the steps drawn out to discredit a man.
Thomas’ reflections on this time are clear-eyed. He expresses bemusement with the early round of questioning, particularly those from then-Senator Joe Biden. We get footage of Biden trying desperately to sound like the legal expert, focusing primarily off the concepts of Natural Law, almost trying to make that sound like a fringe belief system when it was, in fact, something Thomas Jefferson used as the basis of Constitutional writings. Thomas says of Biden’s attempt to sound authoritative on the matter, ”I had no idea what he was talking about.’’
The most striking part of ‘Created Equal’ is hearing Thomas give his impressions of what he went through with the Anita Hill accusations. Not having heard her testimony, once he was told what she had accused him of saying he almost seemed relieved. That is how confident he was in her testimony being false, and his addressing it. The decision was made that after her time before the committee it would be wisest to have Thomas follow with his time for rebuttal, so her vile charges were not the last thing people heard.
As Thomas certainly prepared his comments what was noticeable was his earnestness in fighting back at the charges. He addressed the Senate panel with a firm resolve, not reading a prepared statement but delivering an honest rebuke to the charges and looking at the Senators who had been launching the crudest of personal attacks directly in the eye. It is as impressive a display to watch today as it was back then.
The reason this documentary is so compelling is twofold. We get the personal exposure of a man who is by design a cipher, who wants to be known for his professional accomplishments and nothing more. But we also get exposed to many aspects of his career that the press has deliberately elected to not reveal. It becomes a needed record of a deeply impressive figure.
- Playing in limited release you can check cities for showtimes. If interested in trying to bring ‘Created Equal’ to a theater in your area this link will help to explore the possibility.