Clarence Thomas breaks his silence in theaters nationwide
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas typically sits silently through oral arguments. He has gone a decade between instances of speaking from the bench, and it’s news when he does.
But the tight-lipped justice has plenty to say about his life and beliefs in the new documentary “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.” In it, Thomas describes his rise from abject poverty, brushes with racism and radicalism, and how his political beliefs have made him an “enigma” to liberals wanting to “destroy” him for not fitting their narrative.
It’s a shame that “Created Equal” didn’t get the big opening that a Michael Moore or Al Gore documentary might have received. Director Michael Pack delivers an engaging and emotional two hours — using movie clips and creative analogies such as an oyster boat trip — that would inspire many if it could get on more than two dozen screens nationwide.
In the documentary, a drawing of abolitionist Frederick Douglass is seen hanging behind Thomas’s desk, but a more important figure looms over him. His grandfather, Myers Anderson, was a truck driver who was arrested for allegedly wearing too much clothing. Thomas’s calling to a legal vocation was stirred as he realized how powerful — and dangerous — laws could be in the hands of those responsible for their interpretation.
Thomas embraces the concept of “natural law” found in the Declaration of Independence. Unlike those who would altogether discard the document’s advocacy of basic, inherent rights because of its slave-owning authors, Thomas recognizes slavery and discrimination are antithetical to the ideals of America’s founding principles and wants to right those past wrongs.
His grandfather was illiterate but understood the value of education. So does Thomas. A yearbook quotes him saying he “blew that test, only a 98.” Realizing the adversity that he faced, Thomas always wanted to be good enough that race would be the only reason people could possibly look down on him.
Coming of age in the 1960s and ’70s, Thomas initially gravitated toward leftist militancy that put him at odds with his grandfather and brother. But a series of illogical circumstances pushed him rightward.
Thomas saw Boston’s “social experiment” busing program taking black kids to schools in white neighborhoods that were “as bad or worse” than local ones. He found the racial preferences that got him into Yale Law School couldn’t help him find a job afterward. Once believing that black convicts were merely political prisoners, Thomas worked for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office and was exposed firsthand to chronic black-on-black crime. And a stint in the private sector revealed an affirmative action environment where “numbers prove anything,” whether there’s equal opportunity or not.
Politically transformed, Thomas joined the Reagan administration because of his admiration of a president who stood up to the liberals’ “have theory-add people” social engineering policies. Initially reluctant to become a judge — he had to be convinced that a lifetime appointment wasn’t a lifetime commitment — he quickly grew to love his ability to help interpret the law.
To critics of his 1991 nomination, Thomas was “the wrong black” for the Supreme Court, but Thomas didn’t back down. Recalling his youth in the segregated city of Savannah, Ga., Thomas asserted that he could stomach having to circumnavigate a whites-only park infinitely more than being told to change his views to suit others. His confirmation hearings were famously controversial for Thomas’s robust defense of natural law, his potential opposition to abortion and Anita Hill’s testimony against him.
In the documentary, Thomas explains why he’s silent during Supreme Court arguments. He says he and his colleagues “are judges, not advocates.” Talking is the job of attorneys. Referees aren’t supposed to be participants.
Despite his silence in the courtroom, Thomas has written more than 650 legal opinions — substantially more than any other serving justice. One of his well-regarded dissenting opinions was in the racial preference case of Grutter v. Bollinger. In it, Thomas displayed his regard for natural law and holding America to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. In “Created Equal,” Thomas sums up the case’s final decision as a validation of good and bad forms of discrimination — neither of which he sees as compatible with those Declaration ideals.
“Created Equal” is a remarkable documentary about a remarkable man. Considering its $4,555 per-screen average, the third-highest average in its first week of release, it has certainly earned a wider release.