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Late in the new documentary Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words we see a bronze bust sitting high on a shelf in Thomas’ office. It’s of his greatest role model, his grandfather. And beneath the stern gaze are words Myers Anderson would often say: “Old Man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him.”
Thomas’ journey from Gullah Geechee–speaking poverty in rural Georgia to associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court serves as a perfect model for the complexity, inconsistency, and idealism of the American experiment. Thomas and his wife, Virginia, spent more than 30 hours answering filmmaker Michael Pack’s questions: The film is more an in-depth, extended interview than a traditional documentary (the many mainstream outlets complaining it doesn’t include opposing views evidently failed to finish reading the title).
The Biblical principles that shaped Thomas’ life will be especially fascinating to Christian viewers. Though largely illiterate, Thomas’ grandfather drummed the Scripture he’d memorized into his grandsons’ brains, fostering a ferocious work ethic.
Yet those unfamiliar with Thomas’ story will find no cliché idolization of America’s virtues nor easy demonizing of its vices. On the one hand, the nuns who taught Thomas were very much on the side of oppressed blacks in the segregated South. He makes it clear he couldn’t have become the man he is without his parochial education. Yet it was the blithe bigotry of his white seminary classmates—such as when one told him he was happy about Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—that drove Thomas to abandon his plans for priesthood.
In the film, we learn how his rage against the inequity and prejudice he encounters as a young man drives him to a new religion: Marxism. But his grandfather’s simple wisdom is too deeply implanted for him to lose himself to campus radicalism completely. After a night of violent demonstrating, he finds himself in church, repenting of his hatred, begging God to remove his anger.
It was the blithe bigotry of his white seminary classmates that drove Thomas to abandon his plans for priesthood.
As a new father while at Yale Law School, the young Democrat begins to question more than just the methods of the far left. He sees black students bused into areas offering no better education but a lot more inconvenience and strife. He vows his own son will never be a pawn in social engineering, which Thomas defines as “have theory, add people.” Uninterested in a life of comfortable tokenism, he rejects corporate law and the “golden handcuffs” he believes it offers.
Once he makes the decision to accept a position with Missouri’s Republican attorney general, there’s no going back in Thomas’ ideological transformation. His deep affinity for the natural law the Founders advocated overcomes his distaste of their individual hypocrisy. Though he couldn’t know then, it would eventually bring him face to face with a racism as fierce and personal as anything he experienced in Georgia: During his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, cartoons depicted him wearing the Ku Klux Klan’s white robes and polishing other justices’ shoes.
Thomas’ life would be a riveting novel. That said, Pack’s approach has some drawbacks. When he asks Thomas about his first marriage, we see the face of the famously recalcitrant judge close tight as the oyster shells his mother once shucked in a seafood cannery. If Pack pushes for any further insight, we never see it.
Still, given that Thomas was only 43 when appointed to the Supreme Court, it’s possible he’ll live to become the longest-serving justice in history. His is a uniquely American journey, and a glimpse into the mind and making of such a towering figure shouldn’t be missed.