Few, including myself know much about Clarence Thomas beyond a few headlines and the recollections of his contentious Supreme Court confirmation battle with Anita Hill in 1991.
Last Friday, a film about his life was released: Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words. In it, Justice Thomas tells his entire life’s story, looking directly at the camera, unscripted and without narration. The documentary takes the viewer through this complex and often painful life, dealing with extreme poverty, race, faith, power, jurisprudence and personal resilience.
Justice Thomas is perhaps most well-known for being “reticent” during oral argument, going ten years without asking a question from the bench and a nearly seven-year streak of not speaking at all in any professional context, so the film provides a rare opportunity to hear from him directly.
Of his silence he’s explained, “The referee in the game should not be a participant in the game.” Another reason Thomas has given is self-consciousness about the way he speaks, having learned Gullah as his first language.
Gullah is a creole language spoken by an African-American population living in coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia, where he was born and raised. Gullah is closely related to Bahamian Creole and is based on different varieties of English and languages of West and Central Africa.
After attending Catholic seminary school, he went to college at Mount Holy Cross in Massachusetts, majoring in English Literature, to “conquer the language.”
During the 1960s, Thomas became a radical Leftist, participating in anti-Vietnam War rallies and chanting about freeing Angela Davis. He later underwent ideological whiplash, voting for Reagan in 1980, out of a desire to see an end to the “social engineering of the ’60s and ’70s.”
Thomas still seethes over the “high-tech lynching” of his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation battle, saying, “This is about the wrong kind of black guy, he has to be destroyed,” in reference to his being a Black Conservative.
The film was released last Friday at these theaters, before airing on PBS this spring.