Clarence Thomas quietly occupies a unique place in American life. Anyone who ascends to the nation’s highest court is, by definition, special, but that undersells Thomas. He’s been at the center of the culture war and the debate over the soul of the Constitution—not exactly two minor issues. If that weren’t enough, Thomas’s life growing up black in Georgia gives him the quintessential American success story, even as he has been vilified by the American elite. And in a period characterized by reevaluating racism and its legacy, Thomas has been uniquely targeted with racist smears.
Prominent public figures—and not just anonymous internet trolls—have attacked Thomas on racial grounds. It’s material suited for an inspiring Hollywood movie centering on the black experience in America, akin to recent releases Just Mercy and Harriet. But that’s unthinkable to the elites who have so reviled Thomas for the entirety of his public life. Thankfully, we now have a definitive documentary covering Thomas’s life in director Michael Pack’s Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.
Drawing from more than 30 hours of interview footage, Created Equal knocks down myths about Thomas one after another: that he is an intellectual lightweight, that he doesn’t express his views, that his hardscrabble origins are a narrative contrivance, and more.
The idea that Thomas has no jurisprudential "content" is a persistent one. Racist cartoons showed him as a servant at the feet of the late Antonin Scalia, a fellow originalist, but that picture ignores the reams of opinions Thomas has authored. He’s a prolific opinion-writer who’s somehow painted as a slouch copying others’ work. The lazy black man is hardly a new idea in the annals of smear campaigns, but Thomas has been the target of something much more bizarre: the charge that his upbringing was contrived to get him confirmed.
Few could see the pictures of his shack in Pin Point, Ga., and the slums in Savannah, then hear him describe the wonder of seeing his grandparents’ home with a functioning bathroom and modern appliances, without being moved. His grandfather Myers Anderson worked him and his brother silly in the city and on the farm, and the lessons learned are fresh in his mind—not just because he looms over his office in the form of a stoic bust.
In light of his experience at the bottom rung of society, it’s striking how much of the elite opinion about Thomas uses directly racist language and imagery. A former Jimmy Carter aide writing in Playboy called him the heir of the "chicken eating preachers" who kowtowed to segregationists, while numerous racist cartoons caricatured him as a slave or even a Klansman. His critics in elite media, such as Jeffrey Toobin, argue he’s the product of affirmative action, a charge of such transparent prejudice that it’s inconceivable it could be made about Thomas were he a judicial liberal. The way Created Equal blows these images apart is simply by showing Thomas’s actual journey, as a man and as a jurist.
That journey took him from seminary to the ranks of black radicals, then through law school before he reluctantly joined a Republican attorney general and had a "road to Damascus moment" about his leftist assumptions about the justice system. Later he joined the Reagan administration and eventually became a federal judge, all while building a philosophy on the Constitution and politics according to Christian principles and natural law.
With all due respect to Brett Kavanaugh, Thomas’s hearings were the original Supreme Court circus. He took abuse from NOW, the NAACP, and other liberal activist groups bent on borking him. None of their tactics seemed to do critical damage—but not for want of passion. Joe Biden provides the movie an amusing interlude, rambling about natural law in an attempt to brand Thomas as an extremist on abortion. (That draws the most acerbic line Thomas has in Created Equal: "One of the things you do in hearings is you have to sit there and look attentively at people you know have no idea what they’re talking about.")
But we all know where this goes. Enter Anita Hill, who testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her. Senate Democrats’ ponderous nonstrategy gave way to a proxy war using Hill that would change Thomas’s life forever. Created Equal’s footage of the hearings is mercifully selective, with highlights most viewers will remember but wish they’d forgotten, including pubic hair on soda cans and a gentleman known as "Long Dong Silver."
Viewers believed Thomas’s side of the story by about 2-1, and he was eventually confirmed. But that sordid affair is still the defining image most Americans have of a man who’s lived one of the most extraordinary lives in living memory. Therein lies the documentary’s greatest strength: Created Equal provides such direct access that it shatters the picture of Thomas as some kind of "enigma." It’s also a much more compelling story than the tawdry show the left subjected us to in 1991.
In a way, it’s unfortunate that the movie even has to deal with the hearings when his upbringing in Georgia, his journey to God, and his dramatic philosophical transformation could each supply two hours of fascinating interview footage on their own. But that’s not the movie we get because that’s not the life Thomas got.
Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words premiered in 23 theaters across the United States Friday. The full list of screenings can be accessed here.