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'Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words,' the Hero's Journey

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AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

What happens in America when a black intellectual who was born into the crushing poverty of the Jim Crow South dares stand up to challenge white liberal Democratic orthodoxy?

He is marginalized, socially hamstrung, ridiculed in ugly racist terms and compared by a leading liberal journalist to "chicken eating preachers" taking "crumbs from the white man's table."

He is depicted in racist cartoons as a smiling lawn jockey, and a grinning shoeshine boy polishing a white man's boots.

This is how American politics revealed itself to conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas Jr.

"License is given to others to attack you any way they want to. You're not really black because you're not doing what we expect black people to do," Thomas says in the stirring and deeply emotional documentary on his life, "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words."

The film is in theaters, released at the beginning of Black History Month. It will not receive a media buzz, because Thomas' story is deeply threatening to the liberal orthodoxy.

And it threatens Joe Biden, now campaigning for president, who was one of those white liberal Democratic senators who tried to destroy Thomas and failed.

The climax is Thomas' confrontation with white Senate Democrats, liberals who sought to destroy him using unproven, uncorroborated allegations by Anita Hill that he was a sexual predator.

As he was being excoriated in those hearings, Thomas was asked if he considered withdrawing his nomination. He said he'd rather die than withdraw.

"Created Equal" is the story of the journey of a hero, of lost archetypes and lost faith, and of one man's descent into anger and violence.

In his hatred of racism as a young man, Thomas quit the seminary and embraced the radical revolutionary left. He was later reborn in a renewed Catholic faith. At Yale Law School he became what he called a "fuzzy libertarian," and ultimately a conservative.

The documentary draws on his memoir "My Grandfather's Son." He tells about living in a shack in Georgia as a boy, the smell of open sewers wafting around him, always hungry, later moving on to the soul-crushing slums of Savannah in the Jim Crow South.

But he was saved when his mother turned Thomas and his brother over to their grandfather to raise. Myers Anderson was a stern, hardworking Roman Catholic, an unlettered man who memorized large swaths of the Bible. Upon meeting the boys, he told them that "the damn vacation is over."

The two words grandfather Anderson hated to hear were "I can't."

"Old Man Can't is dead," he'd say. "I helped bury him."

I watched the film the other day and will watch it again. Yes, I became emotional. And yes, it caused me to weep. I will take my wife and sons to this film and see it again with them, and I ask everyone I know to see it.

Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday reviewed it, admitting she's not a Thomas fan, but she was fair enough to write this:

"Thomas' 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' opinions by the time the movie ended, I felt I at least understood the man and his contradictions far better than when it began."

What was especially jarring was to revisit the media attacks against Thomas for his opposition to liberal paternalism and policy: welfare dependency, forced busing and affirmative action.

Thomas believed liberal social engineering hurt the very people it was supposed to help -- poor African Americans.

As a black conservative, there was open season on him. Liberal journalist and former White House adviser Hodding Carter Jr. wrote this, and Thomas reads it with contempt.

"As a southerner Mr. Thomas is surely familiar with those chicken-eating preachers, who gladly parroted the segregationist line, in exchange for a few crumbs from the white man's table. He's one of the few left in captivity."

Chicken-eating preachers? In captivity?

Thomas pauses after reading that, and adds rather acidly, that "Not a single civil rights leader objected to this nakedly racist language."

The other day I interviewed the film's director, Michael Pack, on "The Chicago Way" podcast I co-host with WGN radio producer Jeff Carlin.

"Justice Thomas was getting tired of being defined by his enemies -- by half-truths and outright falsehoods," said Pack, a onetime liberal who turned conservative. "I researched his life. Didn't know much more than watching his contentious nominating hearings.

"But I learned that he is a great American hero. And he has a great story, a classic American story, coming from really dire poverty to the highest court in the land, and it was a story I wanted to tell."

Thomas and his wife, Ginny, sat with Pack for 30 hours of interviews, reliving the pain inflicted upon them by Democratic Sens. Ted Kennedy and Biden.

Rather than cower and withdraw, Thomas relied on the memory of his late grandfather. And against advice, he delivered his famous speech angrily declaring that what was happening to him was a nothing but a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

As he relives those ugly days, you can see the hurt and anger hasn't left him. But why would it? Why would it ever leave him?

If you've ever told yourself that diversity is important in America, then see this film about the price that is paid for true freedom of thought.

To find out where it's playing, go to

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