Analysis

Review: A Penetrating Account Of Clarence Thomas’s Life And Times

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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  • Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Mrs. Virginia Thomas gave over 30 hours of interviews for a new documentary depicting the justice’s life and his steady climb to the Supreme Court.
  • The documentary traverses Clarence Thomas’s brutal childhood, the political extremism of his young adulthood and his remarkable intellectual journey.
  • The film, “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas In His Own Words,” premiered Friday. 

“My all-encompassing word is gross,” Justice Clarence Thomas said of his childhood in a west Savannah, Georgia, tenement. “It was putrid.”

Thomas lived his early years in a remote stretch of Georgia’s coastal lowlands, where life was unforgiving but uncomplicated. His people are the Geechees, descendants of west African slaves and keepers of a dying dialect called Gullah. The relative placidity of life as a child on the water’s edge ended abruptly at age 6, when his ramshackle house burned down, prompting his move to the tenement. Wading through water gave way to wading through fluids and human waste that spilled from neighboring apartments.

Those grueling years, and his most unlikely ascent to the Supreme Court of the United States, are powerfully recounted in a documentary that premiered Friday called “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas In His Own Words.”

“Justice Thomas’ life is a remarkable journey, the quintessential American success story,” executive producer Gina Cappo Pack said in a statement. “He began life in Gullah-speaking Pin Point, Georgia, suffered poverty and privation in Savannah, dealt with the vicious iniquities of the segregation, and yet rose to serve on the highest court in the land.”

Those familiar with Thomas’s bracing memoir “My Grandfather’s Son” will find that the film heaves closely to the book in many stretches. Yet his story takes on new power with voice, film and pictures. When Thomas recounts the angry years of his young adulthood, laden as they were with rage, drunkenness, militant political ideology and the stinging rebukes of his beloved grandfather, one is transfixed in a way difficult to achieve with text.

That sense of listlessness and the incessant search stalks the viewer throughout, as with Thomas’s creeping discovery (real or perceived) that his degree from Yale Law School bore the taint of racial preference. The bitterness that followed is nursed in years of isolation, as Thomas’s profile as a black conservative grew.

Recitals of Thomas’s life often climax with his 1991 confirmation hearing. The documentary gives a fine rendering of one of the most intimate episodes of the justice’s life — the moment when, while resting “in the liminal space between sleep and waking,” the phrase “high-tech lynching” broke into his mind. (RELATED: Clarence Thomas Pans Joe Biden, ’91 Confirmation Hearings In Forthcoming Documentary)

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The justice’s wife, Virginia Thomas, is similarly poignant when she recalls “how little of my husband was sitting in front of me” as he delivered his famous defense before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

All told, it is a deeply penetrating account of the justice’s life and times.

Yet Clarence Thomas has achieved things since his confirmation that demand equal attention. They are curiously lacking in the documentary. The film rightfully notes that Clarence Thomas is the most prolific justice of modern times, producing far more opinions and separate writings than any of his colleagues. The sheer magnitude of Clarence Thomas’s output makes his judicial philosophy difficult to approach. As such, a review of those cases that are the touchstones of his jurisprudence would be most welcome.

The film identifies two. The first is Clarence Thomas’s dissent in Grutter v. Bollinger, which argues that affirmative action policies serve elite institutions, not real people.

“The proffered interest that the majority vindicates today, then, is not simply ‘diversity,'” Clarence Thomas wrote. “Instead the Court upholds the use of racial discrimination as a tool to advance the Law School’s interest in offering a marginally superior education while maintaining an elite institution.”

The other is his concurring opinion in McDonald v. City of Chicago, a jurisprudential tour de force traversing best methods for interpreting the Constitution, the history of the 14th Amendment and his many criticisms of the court’s approach to protecting fundamental rights.

Addressing these subjects at greater length is all the more important in view of the question with which the film opens, a question that follows Clarence Thomas still.

“You are somewhat of an enigma,” Democratic Sen. Howard Heflin told Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings. “You have gone through many changes in your life, which brings us to the question of what is the real Clarence Thomas like?”

Clarence Thomas’s story is old but much forgotten. This fact is at the heart of the public’s enduring perplexity of the justice. He is a man in whom the work of grace played out as it usually does: slowly and agonizingly. He is a sinner-cum-saint, but the modern mind has lost those categories. People call him enigmatic because he transcends diminished expectations. The great men always do.

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