There’s a moment in the new Clarence Thomas documentary, “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words,” following the harrowing confirmation hearing that saw the gentle man, loving husband, and legal genius from Pin Point, Ga., accused of sexual harassment and smeared as a lecherous monster, that sticks with you long after the 2-hour film ends.
It’s the look Thomas has on his face at his swearing-in ceremony. He’s not elated by the prospect of joining the Supreme Court. He looks tired and maybe more than a little concerned for his safety.
And it’s an indictment of the people — one of the most prominent in the person of then-Senator Joe Biden who came across as something of a grand inquisitor — who put Thomas through what he called at the time a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”
"This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree."
Filmmaker Michael Pack conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Thomas and his wife Virginia to create this stunning documentary, which will see a wide release in May 2020 on PBS. And while it covers Thomas’ impoverished upbringing in Pin Point and later Savannah, Ga., as well as his college days as a left-wing angry social justice revolutionary, it is most moving when it covers those days of the Anita Hill allegations when Thomas’ opportunity to sit on the highest court in the land was very nearly stripped from him by allegations he still unequivocally denies.
In his 2008 memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son” — a grandfather that is a looming presence over the film and, indeed, everything Thomas does — the Justice known for his quiet analysis (which he says is part of judicial philosophy that rejects the idea of judicial activism) recounts that by the end of the confirmation hearing he no longer cared about being a Supreme Court Justice. He cared only about fighting back.
"I didn’t care whether I ever sat on the Supreme Court, but I wasn’t going to let what little my family and I had cobbled together to be so wantonly smashed. My enemies wanted nothing more than for me to go quietly. I, on the other hand, owed it to my family and the memory of my grandparents and forebears not to self-destruct but to confront them with the truth."
It’s a sentiment now Supreme Court Justice Bret Kavanaugh repeated at his own hearing where, he, too, was confronted with what were surely drummed up charges of sexual impropriety intended to smear him and ruin his life.
“You may defeat me in the final vote, but you’ll never get me to quit, ever,” Kavanaugh said.
Which is to say the Democrats’ dirty tricks haven’t changed in 30 years.
And the real shame of it all is that, as “Created Equal” showcases, Thomas had been through more than most in order to overcome his challenges to find himself on the threshold of a SCOTUS seat. He should have been rejoicing in his achievement.
Instead, as he told Pack in the film, he feels now about being on the Court exactly the same as he did when he was confirmed.
“Whoop-dee-doo,” Thomas says in the film, without a hint of a smile behind his eyes.
Perhaps the ability to remain unaffected by the glamor of the position makes Thomas a better Justice. It likely does. It almost certainly keeps his attention on the cases at hand and on his own interpretation of them as a constitutional “originalist.”
But it’s a little heartbreaking that this is what the politics of personal destruction, led by liberals and progressives, do to the good men of this country.
Fortunately, there’s much more to Thomas’ story, happier anecdotes about meeting his wife and making his grandfather proud, that shine through in Pack’s film.
But that look on his face at his swearing-in ceremony stays with you long after the film ends.
Sarah Lee is a freelance writer and policy wonk living and working in Washington, DC.