Rarely does a film about a living person open such a bright, fresh panoramic view of something right in front us.
Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words does this partly by undoing false mainstream-media narratives about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But mostly, the film does this by introducing us to a man who has chosen to be the living embodiment of his contemplative judicial temperament.
Created Equal airs on PBS on Monday, May 18 at 9 p.m. ET (check your local listings). It is the surprising product of over 30 hours of video interviews with Justice Thomas and his wife, Virginia Thomas. The film’s producer, Michael Pack, took those more than 30 hours and reduced them to a profound two-hour exploration of a U.S. Supreme Court justice who the mainstream media has long done all they can to mischaracterize, but it doesn’t get lost in all that muckraking; rather, it gives us a profound tale of individual triumph amidst great adversity, a quintessentially American story in an age when film rarely treats the American individual heroically anymore.
Americans who cherish their Second Amendment rights are, of course, aware of Justice Thomas’ votes for our firearm freedoms in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010). In Heller the court ruled that the Second Amendment does indeed protect an individual right, and in McDonald the court confirmed that states and localities (and not just federal enclaves like D.C.) also must respect this right.
Still, neither of those 5-4 decisions specifically struck down gun-control laws that prevent, for example, law-abiding people from carrying guns outside their homes; in fact, several states have since used the perceived ambiguity of those initial rulings to treat the Second Amendment as if it can be regulated away to a right in name only.
More recently, Justice Thomas dissented when a majority of justices decided to call NYSRPA v. NYC moot. But Justice Thomas’ most profound words thus far on this issue came in 2017, when the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of a gun case out of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Peruta v. California.
That decision by the high court left in place a California statute that requires state residents to prove to the satisfaction of their county sheriff that they have “good cause” to carry a gun before they can, perhaps, be granted a concealed-carry permit.
Initially, the plaintiffs in this case won a victory at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain wrote, in a 2-1 decision, that “the carrying of an operable handgun outside the home for the lawful purpose of self-defense … constitutes bear[ing] arms within the meaning of the Second Amendment.”
But the 9th Circuit decided to rehear the case en banc (in the 9th Circuit this means the case is reconsidered by 11 of that court’s 29 judges, selected at random). This larger panel of judges reversed the initial decision and held that “the Second Amendment does not preserve or protect a right of a member of the general public to carry concealed firearms in public.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Peruta’s appeal, Thomas said in dissent that California’s approach was part of a “distressing trend” of treating the Second Amendment “as a disfavored right.”
“The Constitution does not rank certain rights above others,” Thomas wrote, “and I do not think this Court should impose such a hierarchy by selectively enforcing its preferred rights.”
In closing, Thomas wrote: “For those of us who work in marbled halls, guarded constantly by a vigilant and dedicated police force, the guarantees of the Second Amendment might seem antiquated and superfluous. But the Framers made a clear choice: They reserved to all Americans the right to bear arms for self-defense. I do not think we should stand by idly while a state denies its citizens that right, particularly when their very lives may depend on it.”
If you’ve long followed this issue, you likely recall those eloquent words. What this documentary gives you is a vivid portrait of the man behind them, a justice who is much more than the media has been wont to tell us about.
The story begins with his youth in the segregated South. Thomas grew up in a place with big, muddy rivers and amongst dirt poor people in shacks in and near Savanah, Ga. We are soon introduced to his grandfather, a man who made him understand from the age of seven that he wasn’t a victim, but was someone who needed to rise above the injustices all around him.
Thomas would later get into Holy Cross, a college in Worcester, Mass., and then became, in his own words and to the disappointment of his grandfather, “a radical leftist.” But, after participating in an anti-war protest that verged on becoming a riot in 1968, he came back to campus and kneeled in front of a chapel and said, “God, if you take anger out of my heart I’ll never hate again.”
He credits this moment as a turning point. From that moment he began pivoting back to a renewed fidelity for equal justice under the law.
Skipping ahead in his life story, and in the film, we later see a younger Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) in 1991 grilling Thomas during his confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Biden says, “Welcome to the blinding lights” and then keeps mentioning “natural law” and saying things like “you know and I know what you’re talking about” between big, toothy grins and pregnant pauses that push insinuations. The public scene furnishes the impression that Biden didn’t even know what he was talking about; but then, neither did Thomas, as he says in this documentary: “I have no idea what Biden was talking about.” (You can see the clip here.)
There is much more in this important film, which, near the end, even gives us a scene of a relaxed Justice Thomas out somewhere in America in his RV as he says, “I prefer the RV parks to the beaches…. I prefer the regular stock.”
And so we are left with a deep, intricate impression of a man, a judge, who has, by a profound route, come to be a steadfast protector of American freedom.